How one man turned a five-acre patch of land in Norfolk into a habitat-rich area for wildlife
No birder can fail to get excited about going to Norfolk, but my trip was not going to be just
a birding experience, but also a chance to interview, work with, laugh with and share
a ‘little bit’ of moaning with Mark Cocker. Yes work!
As he details in his most recent book, Our Place, Mark bought himself five acres in 2012 from the proceeds of one of his books, Birds and People. At one time, the land would have been described as ‘fields’ by the River Yare, but nature had other ideas and left to its own devices had slowly turned open ground to willow scrub. With the accumulation of leaf litter and roots, it would have one day turned to mature woodland.
Clearing areas of scrub painstakingly with a bushman saw, Mark was gaining some useful firewood as well as time to think about his writing. Working alongside Mark, I was asked to cut up some recent ‘felled’ willow, stacking the smaller branches and piling the large trunks to eventually dry out and then take to his home, cut up as logs.
Mark first showed me around his ‘showpiece’. After only six years he had certainly turned the site into a mixture of habitats, with mature willow scrub, coppiced growth, tall herbs, reedbeds, draining ditches and a small area of field, grazed by the local Chinese Water Deer. The aim is to attract Norfolk Hawkers to buzz around the area, Elephant Hawk Moths to the Willowherb and Fen Raft Spider to the dykes.
Mark, of course, has several books to his name, a mixture of biography, history and memoir. They include Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet (2014), shortlisted for several awards (including the Thwaites/Wainwright Prize) and winner of the New Angle Prize. Crow Country was nominated for a Samuel Johnson Prize. Birds and People (2013),
a collaboration with photographer David Tipling, was published to international acclaim, and the two were shortlisted for six literary awards including the Thwaites/Wainwright Prize.
In 2016, Mark was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of East Anglia.
Lots of different species
David Tipling was not just a friend and collaborator, but used to be his neighbour in the woodland/habitat business. Long discussions about the world of nature took place either on his or Mark’s land. Hard days thinking about future ideas and even books came out of these discussions. David has now sold up next door and bought a wood closer to home in north Norfolk.
Wandering around the land to see Mark’s past work, we stopped at a mature Oak which, given its age, had not been planted by Mark. Given the distance to the next mature Oak where the acorn had come from, it must have been planted by a Jay carrying and burying the acorn ready for a winter meal, then forgetting it. Here, the 600 species of birds, mammals, bumblebees, dragonflies, butterflies, macro and micro moths already recorded on the site were added to when Mark spotted not one but two species of moth using the lichen on his oak as camouflage. Although not ID’d straight away, the wide depth of knowledge Mark has as a naturalist, shone through, as he gave the Latin names of possible species.
In his younger days, his experience led to him to work for organisations like the old Nature Conservancy Council on Holkham NNR in Norfolk, for the RSPB working on species protection on a pair of Parrot Crossbills in the Holkham car park, and for Birdlife International. Mark has also guided for holiday companies such as Limosa and Naturetrek.
Talking to him, I got a good insight into a how a book is constructed. For example, Mark walked 30 miles of the 62-mile long Norfolk Coast Path while writing his latest volume. Not the longest walk in Britain, but it covered many areas of land now protected by conservation organisations, like the RSPB, Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. Many walkers walk at speed, but Mark was doing as little as a mile an hour, due to his naturalist’s instinct, wanting to ID as much as possible along the way. He was seeing part of the success of Operation Neptune, a programme set up by the National Trust to buy 900 miles of coastline (today it owns 775 miles).
Mark explained to me that the purchase of the ‘Flow Country’ in northern Scotland was one of the RSPB’s finest hours.
“Described as ‘Britain’s last wilderness, the Flow Country’s premier parts were bought by the RSPB to protect it from forestry and wind farms and has led to the organisation’s single largest landholding, a whopping 52,000 acres.” The RSPB is now promoting an area of Scotland desperate for ‘wildlife tourism’.
The Great Fen Project is another scheme joining land together to protect water levels and other factors which make the land tick.
“Too many reserves are ‘islands’ and need connecting to give wildlife a better chance,” said Mark.
While working hard on the willow scrub, we stop for a while to watch a Brimstone butterfly cross our path. This was the first butterfly of the year for me, having come from ‘up north’!
The list of bird song was added to by a Willow Warbler fresh in from Africa, along with three other warblers – Chiffchaffs loving the scrub, Cetti’s preferring scrub with reeds growing through it, and Blackcaps enjoying the brambles found in Mark’s brash piles, keeping the deer at bay.
Warblers still to arrive on Mark’s land include Whitethroat plus Garden, Grasshopper, Sedge and Reed Warblers. “Not many of those where you come from,” said Mark, meaning the Cetti’s Warbler. “We’ve had records from Walney to Siddick Pond. There are breeding birds as far north as Leighton Moss on the west and Teesside on the east,” was the reply.
This brought us on to ‘twitching’, which Mark used to do but not anymore.
“To think I once drove overnight from Scilly to Aberdeen to see an Isabelline Wheatear!” he said. I couldn’t beat that. “I did once sleep in when my mate had to wake me up to go for a Red-flanked Bluetail at St Abbs”, is all I could respond with.
His all-round naturalist’s cap gave him the rarest bird he ever found, while looking for the Great Yellow Bumblebee in the Outer Hebrides. He happened to be around Tarbert on Harris when he spotted a dream bird – a White-throated Needletail!
“It is, in fact, the world’s fastest bird in level flight,” he said. “Unbelievable though it seemed to us, the eighth example ever to be seen on these islands was suddenly careering overhead.”
His most amusing moment came the following day. “Watching one friend go from gibbering anxiety to exultant delirium (when he finally saw the bird) was like watching an addict eventually get his fix!”
Mark Cocker – book research
We were soon back to reality, with a Green Woodpecker yaffling behind us, and soon more sawing was in progress. Both a Buzzard and a Kestrel made their appearance, while Mark told me of other records from his patch, such as Marsh Harrier and the sound of Cranes flying over.
We were soon back talking about the present book. “I read 50 books in one year to research this book,” he said (I hate to think how many Mark read for ‘Birds and People’, covering 592 pages!). Mark needed so much up to date information to write this new book – including minutiae such as the cost of fertilisers, and then the cost of removing the same fertiliser as a result of the damage it was doing to waterways. Mind-blowing stuff!
Mark explained that there was a limit to how much he could write in one book, nevertheless, but that he felt he had covered all the major aspects of his subject – whether or not we can save Britain’s wildlife. One interesting feature we talked about was that women created the RSPB 125 years ago, followed by years of it being dominated by men, but that now it is hard to go to a reserve and not find women working in major roles.
It was soon time for me to move on, leaving Mark to carry on his good work with a student, soon to arrive to do his stint at clearing willow and learn about writing from Mark. He still teaches writing as well as nature to groups.
“For me these days, the ideal wildlife walk is one where you don’t actually move because there is so much extraordinary life to see on one spot,” he said.
Mark’s time in Norfolk may be coming to an end, as his roots in Derbyshire are calling and he will have to sell his beloved wood, but wherever he ends up, more brilliant books will be coming our way in the future.
About Mark Cocker
Mark Cocker is an author of creative non-fiction. He is also a naturalist and environmental tutor, who writes and broadcasts on nature and wildlife in a variety of national media. This year, he releases a new book Our Place (Cape) on the fate of British nature since the beginning of the 20th Century. He has travelled in more than 50 countries on six continents, and in 1999 was awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to study birds in magico-medicinal practices in Benin and Cameroon. For the last 35 years his home has been in Norfolk, where much of his spare time is devoted to the restoration of a small wooded fen called Blackwater. He is married to the arts professional Mary Muir.
Curlews in crisis
By Jamie Wyver of the RSPB
Curlews have inspired artists, poets and musicians throughout the ages with their eerie but beautiful call. They also have a very distinctive shape, with their 15cm downcurved bill, evolved for probing soft mud for tasty worms, shellfish and shrimps.
But now our biggest wader is in serious trouble. Since the mid-1990s the breeding population of Eurasian curlews in the UK has halved. Vast tracts of moorland, rough pasture and hay meadows, which once rang to the sound of the rising, bubbling cries of these birds have fallen silent.
Many of the remaining curlews struggle to raise their young in an increasingly fragmented landscape. The patchy grassland and moorland where they nest is broken up by forestry and farming, making chicks more vulnerable to ground predators like foxes.
This decline has global implications as the UK is home to more than a quarter of the world’s breeding curlews. This is particularly worrying as most of the other species in the curlew family are vanishing too, including two which are presumed to be extinct, the Eskimo curlew and Slender-billed Curlew.
So, the UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group, a partnership involving a number of conservation organisations and statutory authorities, is running several projects to help curlews recover. One of these, the RSPB’s Curlew Trial Management Research Project, aims to find the best way of managing land to accommodate these birds. This includes looking at different levels of grazing and predator control.
Farmers and landowners play a vital role in reversing this bird’s fortunes. Already many are making a real difference, working with conservationists to try different methods of land management.
'Curlew Crisis Month'
As well as conservation on the ground, curlew champions across the UK are building support for these elegant birds through Curlew Crisis Month, a series of special guided walks and events.
All 'Curlew Crisis Month' events require pre-booking: for details visit the webpage for each event.
The Vanishing Song of the Curlew, RSPB Dove Stone – Sunday 6 May
RSPB Dove Stone in the Peak District National Park is a particularly important site for curlews. Along with the landowner, United Utilities, the reserve team have been working to “re-wet” the bog, by blocking old drainage ditches. This is having a positive effect on the numbers of ground nesting birds, with populations of dunlins, golden plovers and red grouse, as well as curlew, increasing on the peat bog. Book your place on the Dove Stone Vanishing Song of the Curlew walk to discover more about the reserve and the curlews that call it home.
Whaap Night, Lerwick - Saturday 12 May
The special Whaap Night at Quarff Hall, Shetland, is named after one of the curlew’s traditional monikers ‘whaap’ or ‘whaup’. The celebrations begin with wader sound walks, curlew-themed knitting, wader art, and the launch of a curlew ringtone! Live music from Fleetwood Mac tribute band Chain Gang, supported by Beltane Rae, will celebrate the long-billed bird.
Curlew Cruise, RSPB Lower Lough Erne, Saturday 19 May
The islands of Lough Erne managed by the RSPB make up one of the last strongholds for curlews in Northern Ireland. The reserve team carefully manage levels of vegetation on these by hand, but also enlist the help of cattle who are ferried between islands on a special boat called a cot. You can take a slightly more comfortable tour of the Lough by joining the Curlew Cruise, where a seat on the Lady of the Lake double-deck cruiser will give you stunning views of the islands and their wildlife.
Curlew Calling, RSPB Geltsdale – Saturday 19 May
Ian Ryding is the farmland warden at RSPB Geltsdale – and a musician. He’s hosting Curlew Calling, an evening of music and poetry celebrating the landscape and birdlife of the northern hills. His band The Talkin Fellas will be performing a curlew song they’ve written specially for the event. Ian says “As a warden at Geltsdale, to me the curlew is the true harbinger of the changing seasons. With their arrival come ever lengthening days and the anticipation of spring.”
Woods and Moors Dawn Chorus walk, Eastern Moors – Sunday 27 May
They’re not exactly songbirds but you’ll definitely hear curlews on the Woods and Moors Dawn Chorus walk at Eastern Moors. Find out how the reserve team manage this upland nature reserve for curlews, ring ouzels, and other rare species.
Curlew Moon at Hay Festival – Friday 1 June
Mary Colwell, conservationist, producer, and writer will be giving an illustrated talk about her new book, Curlew Moon. RSPB Global Conservation Director Martin Harper and curlew species champion and Welsh Assembly Member Mark Isherwood will join Mary to discuss the future of this threatened wader.
You can also support the RSPB’s curlew conservation work by treating yourself to Mirrie Dancers limited edition chocolate curlew eggs. For each bag of eggs sold an average donation of £1.49 goes towards curlew conservation.
By Lee Marlow
I’ve been doing it for years now; cajoling him, encouraging him, leaving bird books open at the pages of resplendent-looking Sparrowhawks, hopelessly trying to get my young teenage son Lucas interested in birds. I say years, but all this didn’t start with me and him. It started two generations before, with my grandad and my dad, then my dad with me. A love of birds has been passed down our male line like jowls and prematurely grey hair.
My grandad had a scar on his right hand, from the base of his thumb across to his third finger. “You know how I got that?” he used to tell me. A Little Owl at Bradgate Park. He’d put his hand in a hole in an old oak tree in Leicestershire’s 340-hectare country park, as a 14-year-old birds’ egg collector, and the feisty female Little Owl let him know precisely what she thought of that.
It scarred him, physically, for life. But not emotionally. It didn’t deter him. He passed that love of birds on to my dad. And then my dad, to me. My dad used to walk to work along an old railway line, big Hawthorn trees on one side, an overgrown bank on the other. You should go and have a look down there, he told me one day.
“I saw a Robin nipping in and out of that bank, and then, a few yards down, a couple of Yellowhammers building a nest.”
So I went, that night, after school. And there they were, similar nests in similar locations; tucked in behind tufts of overgrown grass, a Robin’s nest – a perfect cup of moss and horse hair – with five yellow feathered chicks, and then, a few yards further down, a Yellowhammer’s nest, with eggs which looked like they’d been painted by a mad drunk.
I used to see Yellowhammers all the time back then. I can’t remember the last time I saw one.
I watched them hatch and fledge. But not the Robins, even though they should have gone first. The Robin’s nest was ransacked, the chicks – almost ready to fly – taken. I can still remember how that felt. My dad reckoned it was a Stoat or a Weasel. They probably had young to feed, too, he reasoned. It didn’t make it any better.
It left me for a while, this hereditary love of birds, as music and girls and going out came in and took their place, but it returned when I had my own children.
Birds, like Christmas, holidays and big football tournaments, are always more fun when you have children of your own to share them with.
We’re surrounded by old woods and hilly fields where we live. It’s not great when it snows – this part of rural north-west Leicestershire seems to exist in its own microclimate – but when the clocks go forward and everything wakes up for spring, it’s glorious.
Come on, I’m always saying to him. Let’s go for a walk. Not just because it gets him off his Playstation or that he opens up and tells me about school, the cricket team, his friends, etc, when we go for a walk. But it’s a chance to be out with him, to pass it on, that love of birds which my dad gave to me and his dad gave to him. That’s the idea.
The reality is different, because he doesn’t really want to know. We had a pair of Goldfinches nesting in an old fir tree in our back garden two years ago. They were the finest thing in our garden, flitting around, feeding on the seeds of my wife’s lovingly-tended plants, a flash of gold and red and honeycomb brown.
I took to sitting outside every night, just me and my beer, watching them fly from the fence, onto the clothes’ line and into the fir tree to their nest.
When I finally found their nest – and what a nest it was – I got my boy on my shoulders and showed him. Look at that, I whispered, excited. Look at how she’s made it. It’s a work of art, son. Look how she’s lined it with flowers.
“Yeah, Dad”, he said. And that was that. And that’s how it’s been. Until last summer. Suddenly there was progress.
A collision of separate events changed things and this is what I realised:
1. He’s not interested in birds. He’s 13. But he’s interested in gore. In blood and death. So a few weeks ago, when surprising death visited us in the shape of a hungry female Sparrowhawk, his interest was piqued.
We might have seen a noticeable drop in Starlings, House Sparrows, Yellowhammers et al in our area but we seem to have more pigeons than Trafalgar Square, and as a result, the village Sparrowhawk is a regular visitor.
“Look at this,” my wife shouted one afternoon.
A female Sparrowhawk had swooped down on a fat Woodpigeon on our patio. Typically, my boy was so excited by the promise of bloody death that he rushed to the window too quickly and the hawk, momentarily spooked, flew off.
We left the dead pigeon there, hoping she’d come back. She didn’t.
2. On one of our walks, we stumbled upon a Jay ripping open a Wren’s nest. He’d seen a Jay before – but not this close, and not this ferocious. It was a sight to behold.
“What’s it doing, Dad?” Well, it’s looking for food. It will eat bird chicks. It will take them back and feed its chicks other birds’ chicks.
“Urgh”, he said. But he was interested.
3. But not as interested as he was when the Springwatch Stoat managed to squeeze into the hole of the Green Woodpecker’s nest, pulling out its grim looking chicks, one by one.
4. Boys are competitive about everything – so we started making it into a game – who could see the rarest bird, the biggest bird, the deadliest bird, etc. The Jay – not exactly rare in our parts, but shy – was a 70/100. He spotted it first. He got the points. My best that day was a female Bullfinch. 60/100. He won. He always likes that.
5. In an old quarry, not far from where we live, a pair of Peregrines have started to nest. He knows about the Peregrine. It was on the kids’ TV show Deadly 60, a round-up of the most deadly animals in the world, and they’d learned about it at school. So, we’d sit patiently and wait for the Peregrine to show.
We didn’t see it first time out, which I knew would be bad news. But we went again. And again. And although he griped about it, eventually, we saw it. A sleek, slate-grey bird, rising on the wind, soaring high above the quarry, away and then tucking in its wings to swoop on some unsuspecting prey.
“Did you know, dad, that when it flies like that it travels at nearly 200 mph,” he told me, and I smiled. “I didn’t know that. How do you know that?” “Because it said so in the Deadly 60.”
Right. We should come up here again, I said. OK, he said. And we have.
6. He plays cricket every weekend on the edge of an old wood. There are Buzzards nearby. They appear every time he plays, these majestic birds of prey with huge brown and white wings. “Are they Golden Eagles?” he asked. When we got home, we got the bird book down. They still look a bit like eagles, he said. When he was fielding one Sunday morning, I heard him tell a friend: “Look at the Buzzards, they’re a bit like eagles.” I was quietly pleased about that. Maybe, finally, it’s sinking in, I hope it is.
Words: Matt Merritt / Pics: Mark Cureton / Video: Jake Kindred
The best days of birdwatching always require a bit of co-operation from the fickle British weather, and as we headed towards Frampton Marsh RSPB last Friday (September 22), it briefly looked as though that co-operation wasn’t going to be forthcoming.
Thick mist obscured the fields, and we wondered whether we’d see any of the many waders displaced from The Wash by the extremely high tide.
But our fears were misplaced. Gaps appeared to reveal first the sun, then a flyover group of Golden Plovers, and as we got our things together in the car-park more and more of this fast-developing site emerged from the mist, along with a loose flock of around 50 Bird Watching readers, most of them intent on adding a few ticks to their #my200birdyear lists.
Grey Plovers flew over, calling, a Cetti’s Warbler chattered away from some nearby scrub, and as we walked towards the sea wall, there was also the sound of Curlews somewhere in the distance, plus Redshanks sounding the alarm.
On the scrapes beside the road, little flocks of Dunlin fed, interspersed with the odd Ruff or Greenshank, while around 15 Yellow Wagtails picked around the feet of cattle.
By the time we reached the sea wall, the mist was gone for good, and we had wide-ranging views both back over the reserve, and out over the rapidly disappearing saltmarsh. Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers were picked out from among the Dunlin below us, while a Wheatear perched on a fencepost and a Sparrowhawk dashed across, hoping to flush Meadow Pipits. A little further away, a flock of 3,000-plus Black-tailed Godwits were visible, plus maybe half that many Wigeon, and some extended ‘grilling’ of the former produced a single Knot, while a small group of Spotted Redshanks flew over.
So far, so good. Pretty much everyone was adding ticks to their lists, but more importantly, they were enjoying the glorious birds in glorious sunshine, and getting a lot of useful tips from Frampton Marsh warden Toby Collett (@boywonderbirder), who gave a relaxed but hugely informative wader ID masterclass.
Scope views of a Merlin on the ground on the far side of the reserve turned our attention to raptors, and we picked out Kestrels, Buzzards and Marsh Harriers at long range, plus a single Whooper Swan and a similarly solo Bar-tailed Godwit. Wood Sandpiper was another good tick for many, although it eluded some of us (including me – I’m not jealous, honest).
Finally, we headed over to the Reservoir, a part of the reserve I’ve completely missed in the past, to look for the Red-necked Grebe that had been present for a couple of days. And sure enough, there it was, a juvenile resplendent with stripy cheek and throat, and rusty-red neck and upper breast. It was an active bird, and occasionally hard to pick out from the many Little Grebes also on the pool, but it kept us all watching for a good hour.
So, we all headed homewards tired but with the satisfaction of having seen something new, whether for the year or for the life list (that Merlin on the ground was a first for me – I’ve only ever seen them perch on fenceposts previously).
And that’s what the Bird Watching #my200birdyear Readers’ Days are all about. Seeing something new, learning something new. Let us know what you learned, or where you’d like future events to take place, and keep an eye out for news of the next one...
Watch the #My200BirdYear Readers' Day video:
Where did the birds around us right now come from? They might have travelled further than you think
By Dominic Couzens
How do you assess a birding trip? There are various ways, such as counting the number of species you have seen, or re-living good photos that you took. You might have seen something new for the site, or you simply enjoyed the spectacle. On a good day, all these might apply.
However, let’s imagine measuring a birding trip in a very different way. This way is actually not quite possible, but if it was, it would change one’s perception radically. Imagine that, from the moment you set eyes on it, you could know where every individual bird that you saw has come from.
In other words, you would instantly know where it bred or hatched during the summer, and what journey it undertook to get to you. Wouldn’t that make you look at your Black-headed Gulls or Mallards differently!
Now would be a particularly good time to exploit such information. We are in the depths of winter and most birds have settled down for a while. In the months after breeding, many moulted and travelled to their winter quarters.
Now, though, as long as there aren’t any heavy falls of snow, birds have typically moved as far as they will for the moment. The autumn rush has finally subsided, to be replaced by a Christmas quiet.
There is no way to follow a bird’s tracks back, but actually, thanks to the rich heritage of ringing in this country and in Europe, we can make a much better educated guess than you might think.
Two winter bird walks
To illustrate this, I am going to take you on two winter walks. One will recount an actual walk that I have taken in my local patch, a couple of small reservoirs next to a river in Dorset, 10km inland. The second is a walk through a book, the BTO’s mighty Migration Atlas, published in 2002 and summarising the known movements of every British bird.
To quote one example from the book, of Redwings controlled (caught, having been ringed earlier) in Britain, 60% are known to be from Finland, 14% from Sweden and 5% from Norway. This is raw data and subject to all sorts of bias – there isn’t much ringing in the vast forests of European Russia, for example.
But, since the first birds I saw on my walk were a small flock of Redwings passing over in the grey, damp December sky, I am fancifully going to extrapolate: of my 15 Redwings, I reckon that nine are from Finland, two from Sweden and about three-quarters of the other bird is from Norway.
Although I will never know, and it would take enormous effort ever to find out for sure, my estimate is still based on real statistics. It does have a value in making you realise where our winter birds are coming from.
My next species, inevitably, is Black-headed Gull. The lakes are often carpeted with these gulls in the winter – up to 400 birds. To be honest, on most trips I barely notice them, and rarely can I be bothered to count them.
Let’s face it – who really does bother with Black-headed Gulls? In fact, though, their origins are thoroughly mixed, so they are a particularly good candidate for this kind of exercise.
We have significant colonies in Dorset, so it is extremely likely that some of my flock will be local birds. But perhaps what many birders don’t realise is that Black-headed Gulls arrive in large numbers in winter from many parts of Europe and that about 70% of the birds we see in winter are visitors.
These are mainly from Fennoscandia and the near-continent, but others are from less obvious places such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Belarus. My flock could contain birds of nine or 10 nationalities.
Blackbird, Chaffinch, Great Crested Grebe and more…
A Blackbird scoots past into the nearest scrub – about a quarter of our visiting birds are from Norway, so if I later see a small group of Blackbirds feeding in the horse paddocks beside the lake, I can assume that at least one is from there.
Chaffinches are an interesting case, because you can usually tell that they are continental visitors from their behaviour. The really big flocks of Chaffinches on arable fields and in woods are usually visitors, while residents tend to occur in smaller parties and don’t wander.
Our birds are often from Scandinavia, but they don’t like the long crossing over the North Sea, and prefer to fly down the coast of Europe and make the short hop over from France.
A quick check of the first reservoir throws up some Great Crested Grebes – they often come to larger waterbodies in winter when the smaller ones freeze up, but they are all probably local.
Some of the Tufted Ducks also bred here, but others are likely to be from Norway and Finland. They have a few Pochards among them, too, and here I can add some hard data to the mix. Last year, we recorded a female fitted with a band on its bill, proving that it had commuted here from northern France, where it was a breeding bird.
This individual clearly hadn’t read the right books, because these birds are supposed to migrate south and west in winter, not due north. Many of our winter Pochards actually come from Latvia.
As usual, I check the flock for our lone winter Scaup, and eventually find it loafing among a flock of Tufties. This is one of the visitors that most probably comes from Iceland, along with our Snipe and perhaps a few Teals and other northern ducks.
Along the shoreline, a Pied Wagtail feeds. It might be sharing the same space as the nearby ducks, but ringing suggests that this bird could well be Scottish, evacuating the hills and glens for a shoreline in southern England.
I could go on. I hear a Water Rail, not realising at the time that it could be a German bird. A Sparrowhawk passes over and, to my great surprise, I read from the Migration Atlas that it could easily be from Norway or Denmark. The local Grey Herons could be from almost anywhere, and every winter we have an inexplicable influx of local Little Egrets, just for a few weeks.
In my local patch there happens to be a programme of ringing. It is exciting when we have a ‘control’ from somewhere like France or Portugal, but in a way it is the local and semi-local birds that are the most intriguing.
For example, our breeding Reed Buntings literally evacuate the site and go just a handful of kilometres down to the coast. We have controlled a Cetti’s Warbler that was ringed in Yorkshire – not only are they not supposed to go in that direction, but they aren’t meant to fly that far, either.
That’s the beauty of this form of fantasy birding. Who would expect a ‘sedentary’ bird to embark of such a strange movement? And who can imagine where all the other individuals have been?
One thing is for sure. If you really knew where all the birds had come from, you wouldn’t look at them in the same way, however common they were. If this form of birding ever became possible, it could catch on.
* This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Bird Watching magazine. Make sure you never miss an issue – check our great subscription deals here!
By Göran Andersson of Visitoland.com
Öland, the long island in the southern Baltic Sea, has everything the visitor needs to ensure a steady stream of new encounters with birds.
Eventually, it begins to dawn on any visiting birdwatcher that ornithological interests alone are not enough in this multifaceted cultural landscape with its colourful, historical origins and breathtaking geology.
Before long, the ornithologist becomes absorbed in everything and understands that here the saying "Carpe diem" has run its course.
On Öland, people do not seize the day... they are captivated by the unfolding of every new day and are compelled to return time and time again to the island to experience tomorrow!
The southern part of the island is not at all like the northern part and the east coast is wholly different from the west coast. The Great Alvar, the barren limestone plain typical of southern Öland is unique, as is northern Öland's mosaic landscape and the fantastic Mittland Forest in between.
One day the high tide reaches the coastal meadows... the following morning the coast's clay beds are exposed by the low tides and are alive with resting Waders.
This kaleidoscope of steadily shifting environments guarantees plenty of exciting encounters with the island's birdlife.
The island has its own unique weather system, and few meteorologists have mastered the art of making a conclusive forecast, which is essentially impossible. They, and the people of Öland, know that Öland's weather is almost always extremely localised and fluctuating.
However, if you discuss the weather with a farmer or fisherman on the east side, you will often be given an exact current forecast and a trustworthy two-day outlook.
Pics by: Tommie Skoog, Lars Lundmark, Hans Olsson, Eva Aubke, Markus Tallroth and Martin Rodensjö.
An ice-free, green winter on the island creates the conditions for a completely different kind of birdlife than when the Baltic Sea is covered with ice and high pressures from Russia cool Öland down.
If a mild and snow-free December continues with the warm low pressure systems of the Gulf Stream heading north-east in January, then the first spring birds arrive, early "weather migrants" such as Greylag Geese, Common Shelducks, Golden Plovers, Northern Lapwings, Eurasian Skylarks and Starlings.
Yes, the experiences of one spring, when the Atlantic low pressure systems keep arriving over southern Sweden, differ significantly from the bird sightings that are reported when easterly winds blow in over the Baltic Sea.
And just as the final, heat-loving migrants arrive during the last half of May, e.g. Marsh Warblers, Icterine Warblers, Barred Warblers, Greenish Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes, Eurasian Golden Orioles and Common Rosefinches, the spectacular and drawn out migratory bird autumn begins.
As early as this, last year's Common Shelducks and female Eurasian Curlews head south west and as the tourist season kicks into action in June, the Green Sandpipers, Spotted Redshanks, Common Greenshanks and Wood Sandpipers are resting during their journey south.
The strange thing is that the autumn route south can continue into midwinter. For example if there are harsh, cold easterly winds at the start of January after a mild start to the winter... then the Baltic Sea empties of thousands of Little Gulls, often along the south-east coast of Öland.
Or in February, when the ice begins to make serious progress in the Gulf of Finland, and in Estonia and Åland's archipelagos... a steady stream of Common Gulls, European Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls leave the Baltic Sea in a south-westerly direction via Öland.
And if these, the last of the autumn migrants, head for milder low pressure winds over southernmost Sweden, they may meet Lapwings, Starlings and Eurasian Skylarks flying north-east.
Despite Öland's maritime climate it is a sunny and fairly dry landscape, which is good company for a birder.
The southernmost part of Sweden, perhaps mostly the highlands of Småland, provide a "rain shadow" for the island: precipitation falls from the damp low pressure fronts in the west before reaching Öland.
On the other side when the Baltic Sea offers an ice-free winter, one of the meteorologists' favourite expressions is born, "snow cannons", from the dry, biting and icy north-easterly winds. They have their origin in the powerful, Russian high-pressure fronts and create curtains of snow on their way to Öland.
Sometimes the island experiences the special and fascinating but dangerous snow storm - the Öland Fåk! To experience a real "fåk" under safe conditions, is a spectacular experience for the humble human.
In combination these create Öland's eight seasons, the foundation for a landscape with a rich fauna.
The ultimate birding year consists of four "normal" seasons, linked together by four in-between periods of fluctuating weather.
When these meteorological conditions are then combined with ornithological magnificence, such as:
• routes of migrating birds,
• gatherings of migrating birds on the headland of the north and south,
• traditional resting places where the whole of Öland is a refuge in the routes of migrating birds,
• the marshes of the Great Alvar and wetlands that blink in the otherwise fairly barren habitat,
• smallholdings in the alternating mosaic landscape and
• the grazed coastal meadows beside the Baltic Sea,
yes, it is a mathematical truth... Öland is a completely unique place for birds.
Most of Sweden's birds have been seen here and wherever you find yourself between March and July you will hear the Skylarks singing. Yes, nowhere else in the country is there such a high concentration of Skylarks!
The limestone plains, look like misplaced alpine heathland. But when you look out across the Great Alvar or hike along the Alvar-clad limestone floor, the experience almost approaches a verdant "inland sea".
This lyrical and slightly desolate ocean of growth has its own special brand of horizon, a thin line between land and sky... like a counterpart to the distant blue horizons of the Baltic Sea and the Kalmar Strait.
Merlins, Golden Plovers and Eurasian Curlews nest here.... and where the juniper has crept onto the plain, inside the kingdom of stone walls, there are species such as Red-backed Shrikes, Common Whitethroats, Common Linnets as well as Whinchats and Northern Wheatears.
Öland, for a birder, is a magical landscape all year round. My own annual cycle often begins with overwintering Golden Eagles on the limestone plains and huge gatherings of White-tailed Eagles along the coast.
Migrating birds, such as Common Snipes, Meadow Pipits, Song Thrushes and Redwings remain and along the banks of seaweed or in some industrial area, Black Redstarts spend the winter.
The Horned Larks and Sanderlings return to a sandbank by the sea.
If there is a really harsh winter, it doesn't arrive until February. Then there is a chance of seeing Steller's Eiders and Purple Sandpipers, who often remain as spring and early summer creeps over the island.
For me, the real sounds of spring are the coastline's laughing Common Shelducks and screeching Black-headed Gulls, along with the parasols of sound that span the landscape and the limestone plains, like unpredictable Eurasian Skylarks and Northern Lapwings that hover over those who take the time to see and listen.
For a few nights in May I am offered a starter to the summer, a dish that makes its way straight to my heart and soul: Corncrakes, Nightjars, Common Quails and Thrush Nightingales. After that everything around us, Öland's birders, deepens and grows, so there is barely time to see everything. There are, quite simply, just too many birds here.
The loveliest period of the summer comes in August along the east coast of Öland, especially during late afternoons and evenings. The sea is warm now and the shallow, stretching beaches and the exposed sea beds produce food for migrating birds.
Here we can sit with the sun on our backs and just enjoy the Arctic Wader migration, perfected by Parasitic Jaegers, Dippers, Black Terns and the unbelievably fascinating migration of Common and Arctic Terns, but also by episodes of Caspian, Little and Sandwich Terns!
And then, one dawn as September becomes October, hundreds of thousands of European Robins and Goldcrests arrive on Öland, after a night migrating across the Baltic Sea.
They are everywhere. They strum and sing from every square metre of solid ground and you are captured and enchanted by this "magical, great migration" experience.
After that experience, nothing again seems the same in your ornithologist's life. You will always return to Öland, whether it is in your thoughts or in reality.
And then comes the great day of Common Cranes... or the day of the Rough-legged Buzzards. Days of Greater White-fronted Geese and Barnacle Geese, before November turn the paraffin lamp's flame down to its lowest.
Finally, in the last light on the afternoon of New Year's Eve you see a male Common Blackbird rummaging through autumn leaves.
As we all sit glued to our screens watching the latest bird-related dramas unfold on BBC TV’s Springwatch, Adam Rowlands, RSPB Senior Sites Manager for North Suffolk Reserves, recalls the highs and lows of hosting the popular series at RSPB Minsmere for the last two years.
Adam says: “Before the Springwatch cameras rolled into Minsmere, few visitors paid much attention to the reserve’s fish, unless they were being eaten by a bittern or little egret. All that changed in June 2015 as the saga of Spineless Si unfolded on our screens, and visitors began taking selfies as they watched his antics live from the boardwalk into Island Mere Hide.
The popularity of this two-inch long stickleback took even the producers by surprise, but also highlighted how much there is to learn about behaviour of even our commonest wildlife.
A great example of this was what became known as “Badger-geddon” when, during the first series from Minsmere in 2014, a badger was filmed swimming out to islands on the Scrape and devouring nest after nest of gull and avocet eggs.
Armed with this new evidence, we set about replacing the aging anti-predator fence around the Scrape with a higher specification fence the following winter.
The results were instant, with 2015 the most successful breeding season for avocets for more than 30 years. After the low of 2014, it was heart-warming to see so many avocet chicks feeding close to the Scrape hides.
There was another positive side to the badger predation too, as we teamed up with the BBC and Dawn Scott from the University of Brighton to understand more about Minsmere’s badgers by fitting some with radio collars.
Adders, too, became the subject of a tracking programme with tiny transmitters fitted to some of them to give an insight into their movements.
In fact, adders have become a star attraction at Minsmere during the spring, with many visitors being lucky enough to watch them dancing as courtship reaches full swing in early April.
Their popularity with visitors could have presented a problem as adders are very prone to disturbance. But we spoke to some experienced adder surveyors within our volunteer team and quickly identified an effective way to allow visitors, including families, to spot these sometimes elusive snakes without disturbing them.
Our temporary adder trail was a great success, and coupled with the BBC data, our volunteer guides were able to build up a good knowledge of individual snakes.
Volunteers, of course, are a key to helping to ensuring that Minsmere works as both a leading visitor attraction in Suffolk on one of the best homes for nature in the UK. Once we knew that Springwatch would be moving to Minsmere we recruited an additional team of volunteers to assist with all aspects of the reserve operations.
Recruiting volunteers before the first series was a test of our imagination. Until the official BBC announcement about three weeks before broadcast, we had to deny that Springwatch were even coming to Minsmere, so the adverts asked for “secret keepers”.
Of course, it was obvious that something was happening as the BBC had constructed a new studio close to the Whin Hill watchpoint, as well as two filming hides on the Scrape, so you could say this was the worst kept secret in the world.
As secrets go, though, this one was a long time in the planning. Much longer than many people realised.
We first met with Springwatch film maker Nigel Bean way back in 2008 when they were looking for a new home for the series after deciding to leave their original Devon Farm. At the time, Minsmere’s technical restrictions meant that they chose to set up at Pensthorpe in Norfolk instead.
(Photos by Rupert Masefield and John Chapman)
Although disappointing, this proved to be a blessing in disguise. By the time we spoke to Nigel again in July 2013, we had upgraded our visitor facilities and infrastructure and felt much more confident that we could facilitate the anticipated increase in visitors should Springwatch set up base at Minsmere.
Nigel quickly realised the potential for Minsmere to provide footage of the best of the UK’s wildlife within easy reach of a central base, but while the communication issue was easier to address this time, there was one big question to answer: where would the studio be?
We had no suitable building, so a purpose-built studio was commissioned – once approved by the BBC bosses, of course.
This was only the start of the planning though. We had to plan carefully to accommodate both the BBC and the expected extra visitors to ensure that everyone continued to enjoy their visits to Minsmere – and to improve the visitor experience throughout the year.
As well as extra volunteers, our planning meant bringing in a temporary pop up cafe in the woods to supplement our own cafe, providing extra toilets and overflow car parking, producing extra signage, and training our new volunteers.
The BBC had logistical issues to address too, as this was the first time Springwatch had been based at a site with high public access.
Temporary Springwatch village
A temporary village for 120 staff was built in two weeks prior to broadcast, and dismantled again in just 48 hours. There were 12 fixed cameras erected around the reserve, and three mobile cameramen ready to record the action, as well as a team of engineers, story-editors and even their own catering team, all working shift patterns around the clock to bring footage, not just for the live programmes, but the via the red button too.
Cables had to be laid to minimise disturbance, and wherever possible cameras were checked or moved at first light, before many visitors were around. It is no small feat to lay 32 km of cabling around a nature reserve without disturbing visitors or wildlife, but the BBC’s expertise ensured that this was done successfully, ready for broadcast.
In that first year, we were surprised to hear that much of that cabling came direct to Minsmere from the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. Even more surprisingly, within an hour of the final programme finishing, some cables were on route to the football World Cup in Brazil, with the rest soon packed off to Glastonbury.
I’m sure that Bert Axell, Minsmere’s famous warden from the 1950s and ‘60s, and creator of the Scrape, would have been chuckling at that thought, as his ambition was always to make Minsmere’s Scrape the “Wembley of birdwatching”, even if the thought of thousands of visitors might make him turn in his grave!
Bringing wildlife to our TV screens
Finally, everything was ready for the cameras to roll and the presenters to bring Minsmere’s amazing wildlife to TV screens across the UK. Fittingly, 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the BBC’s Live Birdwatch programmes presented by Tony Soper from Minsmere, while this year will mark 35 years since the first of those broadcasts in 1981. Both the scale and technology involved in live broadcast have changed a lot in the intervening years.
Talking of scale, the planning that went in before the shows even aired meant regular 15-hour days for our Site Manager, Robin Harvey, and me as we worked with the BBC to identify filming locations and reduce any impact on the wildlife.
But the rewards were worth it. I can vividly recall the excitement of stumbling upon a bittern nest with eggs still being incubated whilst looking for another known nest. This new nest went on to steal the show in year one as viewers were captivated by the growing bittern chicks eager to watch them “semi-fledge.”
Our bitterns proved popular with visitors too, with the females’ regular feeding flights ensuring that most visitors had the chance to see these often elusive birds. Some visitors were brought to tears by these bittern encounters.
We’ve also learned a lot from working alongside the BBC’s expert nest finder, Steve Roberts, as his skills proved invaluable when locating nests. We feel more confident in our abilities to find nests now, too.
After the bitterns and tawny owls in year one, and the avocet chicks, adders and sticklebacks in year two, which species will be the stars of the current BBC show? However much we plan, the unpredictability of wildlife means that until the cameras roll once more, we really couldn’t guess.”
This pair of birds are among the most difficult to separate of all British birds – at least based on their appearance. The most reliable way to separate these brown tits is their voice. Unfortunately, there is considerable variation and a little overlap in the vocalisations. Fortunately, though both species are very vocal, and the most common calls and songs are distinctive and diagnostic.
Marsh Tit ‘pitchoo’ call
The classic Marsh Tit call is a sneezing ‘pitchoo’, with a distinct separation of the clipped, high-pitched first part and a drawn out pew sound for the second half of the sneeze. The call is often followed by a typically tit-like ‘chicka dee-dee-dee’, which is rapidly paced, unlike the chay chay of Willow Tit.
Willow Tit ‘chay chay’ call
The typical and unmistakable call of the Willow Tit consists of a very brief introduction pi followed by three or four drawn-out, rather buzzing ‘chay’ notes. Crucially, these are slowly paced, unlike the rapid ‘chickadee-dee-dee’ of Marsh Tit.
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Bird Watching editor Matt Merritt blogs from his trip to the Falklands
As a child, there are certain birds you imagine will always remain within the covers of books.
For me, this was never more true than of albatrosses. I could, in my wildest daydreams, just about conceive of trekking to see Andean Condors, or birds-of-paradise, or kookaburras or roadrunners. Some of those daydreams have even been fulfilled.
But albatrosses? No. Not being of seafaring stock, the chances looked just too slim. Even if I was ever to find myself in the southern oceans, their utter vastness would be too much. Needles and haystacks sprung to mind.
The odd Black-browed Albatross turned up in Scottish Gannet colonies, justifying their presence in European field guides. But that just made it worse. So near, yet so far. The now-legendary ‘Albert Ross’, a bird that returned to the northern UK until the mid-90s, was just too early for me to twitch. The nearest I got was watching the Fulmars at Scarborough, or Hunstanton.
All of which lent a dream-like quality to the short boat trip across from Carcass Island to West Point Island. Off the north-west corner of West Falkland, they’re isolated even by Falkland standards, but of course that’s what makes them perfect nesting sites for some of the world’s most extraordinary seabirds.
So, suddenly, as you get close to West Point’s towering cliffs, you realise that the large flocks on the water all around are not yet more Kelp Gulls. They’re bigger, they sit higher in the water, and as soon as you get the binoculars on them you can see that they’re meeting your gaze with a stern, disapproving glare. Black-browed Albatrosses.
That would have been enough. Not the odd bird, but hundreds, some just feet from the boat. I could have gone home a happy man. But what makes West Point a must-visit if you’re in the Falklands is the fact that those first views of flocks feeding at sea are just the starter. The main course is utterly extraordinary.
You can walk or be driven the short way across the island to the promontory of Devil’s Nose, but whichever you choose you won’t be in a hurry to leave. Around 500 pairs of Rockhopper Penguins and 2,000 pairs of Black-browed Albatrosses nest here on the steep, grassy westward-facing slopes (you can imagine the clamour, and the smell). It’s a measure of how staggering the albatrosses’ presence is that you can find yourself forgetting the penguins are there, charismatic as they are.
Part of that is because of the contrast between the albatrosses’ frowning, slightly intimidating appearance, and their ultra-confiding behaviour. Time and again, as you push through the thick tussock-grass, you find yourself within touching distance of one.
Sometimes it’s the adult birds, and it’s a wonderful chance to get an idea of their very considerable size (think Gannet, or a smallish goose) and the beautiful subtleties of their plumage.
More often, it’s a grey, downy youngster, sitting atop a pedestal nest. Care needs to be taken not to startle the birds, because a youngster that falls off the nest won’t be fed, but they seem pretty unflappable, if you’ll excuse the pun.
The chicks take 120-130 days to fledge, after which they head out to sea, only returning after around three years. After that, they take another seven or so years before they actually breed – the intervening time is spent in practicing courtship rituals.
The long journeys that lie ahead are all the harder to take in as you watch the young birds. They’re even clumsier on the ground than their parents, who use little downhill grass runways on the hillside to launch themselves into the air.
Once they ,do, though, they’re transformed. Those immensely long, narrow wings are merely twitched every now and then as they find and ride the air currents swirling around the cliffs. As you watch, you become aware of certain fixed flightpaths being used by bird after bird, each aerial highway shifting position slowly over the course of an hour or two.
And of course, you’re sat high but perfectly safe on the cliffs, with albatrosses flashing across above and below you. Gaze out to sea, and as far as the horizon there are albatrosses skimming the surface of the waves. For all you can tell, they stretch away in a swirling, At times you can feel you’re gliding out there too, so complete is your immersion in this overwhelming experience.
There’s one final disorientating contrast to take in, in that five minutes after being in the midst of this extraordinary mass of bird-life, you can be enjoying a very British cuppa and cake in the island’s farmhouse.
That mixture of the homely and the genuinely fantastic is typical of the islands, but nowhere is it so pronounced as on West Point. If you’ve come this far, from home and those childhood daydreams, make sure you go that bit further, to the outer islands, and the outer limits of your birding imagination.
Bird Watching editor Matt Merritt tried one of Heatherlea’s Caper Breaks, and got much more than he bargained for…
Maybe 200 yards away, there’s a large, dark brown bundle in the middle of the frosty forestry track. We whisper to each other about it, as much in a sort of excited awe as an attempt to avoid scaring it away.
That’s because the bundle is a hen Capercaillie. We’re barely past breakfast on the first day of our November Caper Break, and we’ve already found the species that most of us are desperate to see, here in the Abernethy Forest just a couple of miles from Heatherlea’s Nethy Bridge hotel.
The bird is far enough away not to be panicked by us, but close enough that she’s still wary, so we’re able to watch for fully 15 minutes, taking in the orange-brown chest and white-flecked flanks. Is it just my imagination, or does she edge away towards cover almost imperceptibly?
When, finally, we do drive on, it’s for a walk in the forest that brings Crested Tits, a few Waxwings, Common Crossbills and Goldcrests, plus Red Squirrels. There are more Cresties around the feeders at Loch Garten RSPB, too, and we enjoy watching them while Coal Tits feed from our hands. Bank Vole is another good mammal tick, feeding on oatmeal near the main hide. Afternoon takes us up Strathdearn (also sometimes called the Findhorn Valley) in search of eagles. This time, our target eludes us, but there are still plenty of raptors, as well as Red Deer stags roaring at each other on the higher slopes. Buzzard, Kestrel and a Peregrine show, and just before we leave, a Goshawk tilts at a pair of the many Ravens that soar around the valley.
Our superb guide, Ian Ford, has already made the point that watching the Ravens is often a great way of telling if large raptors are around. It’s not the last time he’ll be proved right. That evening, over an excellent dinner, we discuss the day’s sightings amongst the six of us. We recount the Caper sighting again and again, but first thing the next morning, a visit to moorland near the hotel provides a grouse encounter that’s very nearly a match for it. A Red Grouse cock sits just above the road, calling, while in the opposite direction, seven Blackcocks strut around in full view, their white undertails and red wattles standing out a mile in the just-past-dawn light. The sound’s as thrilling as the sight – bubbling calls and a noise like squealing train brakes.
Talking of calls, we twice hear what sounds like the bugling of Cranes, but if they’re passing overhead, the low cloud hides them well.
We stop off at Loch Garten again, to enjoy the Cresties and Coal Tits, with the latter refusing to take anything but black sunflower seeds, and our journey to the coast is broken by a stop for some close-range viewing of Red Grouse near Lochindorb.
Findhorn Bay produces a flyover flock of Waxwings plus Golden Plovers and Bar-tailed Godwits, while some seawatching at a very windy Findhorn itself produces Black and Red-throated Divers, Common and Velvet Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, and singles of Slavonian Grebe and immature Gannet. A Hen Harrier coming in off the sea is a thrill, too. Burghead boasts a Grey Seal in the harbour, plus Eider flocks and scoters offshore.
Rain the following morning can’t dampen our spirits – Dipper, Whooper Swans and Goosanders see to that, and although Capercaillie remains hidden at the private estate to which Heatherlea has access, a Peregrine piques our interest before Ian spots a Woodcock well camouflaged among dead wood just 10 yards from our minibus.
Perhaps the cryptically-patterned, usually-secretive wader has just dropped in from Scandinavia, because never before have I been able to watch this beautiful bird at such length, bouncing up and down as it walks, probing the soft ground with its long bill as it feeds hungrily. Even when it turns its back on us, we can see the dark eyes watching our every camera click (and there are a lot of them in half an hour).
We head back up Strathdearn, feeling lucky, and although we only get Buzzards near the top end, as we return we stop by the roadside, and I find myself watching a pair of Ravens above a wooded ridge.
Suddenly, there’s something huge up there too, ducking out of sight, and when we drive round the next bend, we can see it’s a juvenile White-tailed Eagle, hanging on the wind and carrying a stick.
We watch while the Ravens attempt to goad it into chasing them, and once or twice it obliges, but mainly it concerns itself with dropping then catching the stick, all the time showing superb mastery of the gale with its great, barn-door wings. It’s my first UK White-tailed, and it’s just that little bit sweeter for being self-found.
We just have time to find a few female Scaup, plus a close-range Red Kite, along the Moray Firth, before we head back to the hotel, each picking out a different highlight from three packed days.
And, it’s worth saying, that’s a highlight in itself. The expertise of our guide ensures an incredible amount gets packed into the short autumn days, while the small groups make for a friendly birdwatching experience with individual expertise passing back and forth freely.
If you’ve never tried a birding holiday before, you couldn’t do better as a place to start. It’s friendly and far from daunting, but you’ll enjoy some of the UK’s most iconic birds.
At the end of February, I was lucky enough to travel to South Africa on one of Lawson’s Safaris’ birdwatching trips.
After flying to Nelspruit from Johannesburg, we birded our way through Blyde River Canyon, spent two days in the Kruger National Park, then flew down to Durban before heading north along the KwaZulu Natal coast, with stops at Eshowe, Mtunzini and St Lucia.
As you’d imagine, we encountered an extraordinary variety of birds and mammals, from the smallest sunbird right up to elephants and giraffes. I’ll be writing about it in detail in Bird Watching in the summer, but in the meantime, a mention for some of the less glamorous avian inhabitants of South Africa.
Firstly, although we saw plenty of other representatives of their families – hirundinidae and apodidae respectively – the familiar (Eurasian) Swift and (Barn) Swallow were both present in good numbers. Both would be among my favourite UK birds anyway, but there’s something genuinely moving about the thought that the birds we were seeing skimming over the bush might, in a matter of weeks, be searching for their insect food above rather more prosaic UK habitats, like playing fields and sewage works.
The day in late April (in fact, it’s been early May the last couple of years) when the first screams of Swifts outside rouse me from my sofa-bound stupor is already one of my most eagerly awaited birding experiences of the year – this year, it will take on a little extra frisson of excitement.
Swifts and Swallows do at least get the credit they deserve. Artists, photographers and poets queue up to pay tribute to these most aerial of birds, but the same can’t be said of Starlings. True, their astonishing ‘murmurations’ draw gasps of admiration every time a national newspaper’s picture editor enlists their help to cope with a slow news day, but individually, they’re routinely denigrated as the bullies of the bird-table, despite the worrying declines they’ve suffered in recent years.
In South Africa, we came across starlings of all shapes and sizes. Wattled Starlings, with their ornate face-furniture. Red-winged Starlings, with…well, you guessed it. The various species of glossy starling, every one of them a mass of shimmering, iridescent blue-purple-green plumage. Or the Violet-backed Starling, with the gloriously coloured male contrasted dramatically with his dowdy, streaky mate.
Every one of them was worth looking very carefully at – I wonder if, living in South Africa, you’d ever take such gorgeous birds for granted?
When I got home, the first thing I saw as I waited in the Heathrow bus station was a strutting, fearless Starling, snatching food scraps from among the luggage trolleys and heedless, hurrying feet. In the normal course of events, I realised, I’d probably have given it no more than a brief glance.
Sometimes, though, lack of sleep or the energy to do anything other than sit and wait the long half-hour for your bus is a genuine blessing. And however familiar or seemingly mundane we’ve let them become, our own (European) Starlings can hold their heads up high next to their more exotic counterparts. This one did, quite literally, showing off that bright yellow bill and a plumage that, in a more poetic moment, I might have described as countless stars reflected in a puddle of petrol and water (I’ll settle for a wonderful sheen of purples, blues and greens, covered with white spots).
Even in their duller but spottier winter plumage, Starlings are truly striking birds, but at this time of year, they really deserve a second glance, and a third, and a fourth. They’re a taste of the tropics, anything but a Little Brown Job.
Remember that, next time you hear one launch into its extraordinary mash-up of a song. Find out more about Lawson’s Safaris at www.lawsons-africa.co.za
Original feature in the March 2012 issue of Bird Watching...
I learnt quite quickly that if I was going to be working on Fiji’s reefs and land all day every day I’d have to stop trying to keep up with the Fijians in their nightly Kava drinking sessions. Kava is the Fijian’s traditional drink. It’s a root that’s pounded into dust then mixed with water and poured into a communal drinking pot, a tanoa. You’re then passed a coconut shell (bilo) filled with Kava and have to drink it all in one go. The only thing I can liken it to is drinking a muddy puddle (although I’ve never tried that!).
For the first week I’d see birds when I wasn’t even looking for them. Every afternoon I played rugby with the locals (dodging the land crab holes) and it wasn’t uncommon for five or six Lesser Frigatebirds to pass over while the Mynahs and Spotted Doves would be found foraging among the chickens around the pitch.
Due to the threat of drought we weren’t allowed to use the toilet for wee breaks and instead had to make do with the surrounding bushes. At my usual site, White-collared Kingfishers, Slaty Monarchs and Vanikoro Broadbills all spied on me, making my usual boring toilet break somewhat more interesting, and a Fan-tailed Cuckoo would call to me from the undergrowth with its almost snore-like whistle.
On my first visit to Fiji, I’d immediately noticed just how friendly the people were, always wanting to help, show you stuff and, it seems, fatten you up! Talking with the locals on Moturiki was a great help. However, sometimes it was hard to communicate our priorities to them – they couldn’t understand why we wanted to find these animals.
Finally, we had a breakthrough. After weeks of searching in the bush for the scarce Banded Iguana, I was talking to two of the village elders about the Vokai (the Fijian name for iguanas) when they told me to follow them.
A short walk from where we were, they took me to a tiny tree metres off the path, just behind the village shop. Within minutes we had a stunning, albeit tailless, male Banded Iguana in our hands, after finding it disguised perfectly among the leaves.
One afternoon, the local kids brought me a Polynesian Triller tied to a stick. They’d found it flying around their kitchen, doing it’s best at pest control.
However, they quickly eclipsed their Triller find, appearing at the door one evening with yet another stick, this time adorned with a dazed and confused Tongan Fruit Bat. They proudly told me how they’d hurled stones at it, knocking it from the sky, and thought that instead of eating it (apparently they taste like chicken) they’d donate it to my temporary menagerie.
Two days later, after eating all of our banana supplies and stinking out my bedroom, the much livelier than on its arrival fruit bat was set free, but not before demolishing another banana!
When I wasn’t taking care of the various creatures that were put in my care, I was snorkelling on the pristine reef, taking surveys of what was about, dodging sea kraits (a type of snake), reef sharks and stingrays or climbing trees looking for hidden skinks and tramping around the island barefoot in search of birds.
I had my main wader fest after one of the dumbest ideas I came up with. After a night in which we definitely each consumed 50 bowls of Kava, the traditional root-based drink, leaving us and the rest of the village with very sore stomachs, and I’d stumbled straight into a disguised tree stump, leaving my little toe swollen and a beautiful shiny purple colour, my friend and I, and one of the Fijians, decided we wanted to conquer the island.
Packing bottles of water, a few samosas and my trusty 7D camera we headed off at 8am on a 10-mile round trip, with the aim of visiting all 10 villages on the island.
The one thing I did forget were my shoes. Barefoot walking… with a bad toe… for 10 miles… on a mixture of surfaces… is not fun and my feet complained for days afterwards, but, after hours of walking, on reaching the penultimate village from home we found a wader lover’s dream – the tide had left exposing miles of gooey mud.
The expanse was dotted with mangrove trees and an array of waders. Wandering Tattlers, Ruddy Turnstones, Bar-tailed Godwits and Pacific Golden Plovers moved about, feasting on what the mud had to offer. Among them I was surprised to see Fiji’s very own heron success story (much like our Little Egret invaders), the White-faced Heron. Feeding in large groups, they have only appeared in Fiji in recent years but are going from strength to strength!
They obviously like it here – and it’s not hard to see why.
Note: This is an archived article from the previous Bird Watching website...
If you’re a long-term reader of Bird Watching, you might remember that, a little over a year ago, Mark Nowers of the RSPB detailed the delights on offer on the organisation’s Birds by Barge trips, on the Stour Estuary.
This bird-rich area, forming part of the Suffolk-Essex border, gets rather overshadowed by some of the well-known birding hotspots further north in East Anglia, but Mark made a good case for it being a real hidden gem.
A couple of weeks ago, I found out for myself. I was at Mistley Marine, just outside Manningtree, a little after dawn. The sky was clear, the sun bright, the wind light and the river perfectly calm, and although we were wrapped up like polar explorers against the first real blast of winter cold, the prospects were good.
Let’s get it straight, though – when I say barge, I don’t mean the sort of narrowboat-style affair you might have in mind. The Sailing Barge Victor is a large, wide-bottomed motorised vessel, of the type which chugged to and from the maltings of East Anglia in days gone by. It’s got a comfortable, roomy cabin/galley, and it’s a very stable platform from which to watch birds, or digiscope or photograph them.
We were picking out Curlews, Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits on the nearby mudflats even before we’d left our berth, and of course it’s those food-rich expanses that make an estuary like this so important for wintering birds, with around 30,000 spending the coldest months of the year on the Stour.
Throughout the trip, we were provided with expert commentary and direction from Mark and RSPB volunteers – their wealth of knowledge about not only the birds, but also the landscape and its history (The Royal Hospital School, on the Suffolk bank, is hugely impressive), made the time pass all too quickly.
But what about those birds? Well, there were plenty of Red-breasted Mergansers, always a thrill for a Midlands-based landlubber like myself, and we got good views too of a small raft of Common Scoters, another sea-duck I see far too rarely. Add a few Pintails, lots of dark-bellied Brent Geese, Goldeneyes, and a noisy, whistling flock of Wigeon, plus all the commoner ducks, and we were off to a flyer.
Waders are another family of birds I see too little of, living where I do, but we easily added Lapwing, Avocet and Oystercatcher to the species mentioned earlier, while some careful scanning revealed occasional Grey Plovers dotted along the shore, as usual striking a rather bad-tempered, anti-social pose. Meanwhile, small, very fast-moving flocks of small waders skimming the water before coming to rest among their fellows revealed themselves as Dunlin and Knot.
It’s no longer a surprise to see Buzzards soaring over the East of England, however implausible it would have seemed not so long ago, and sure enough once the day had warmed a little, there they were over the Suffolk shore, spiralling above the woods. Kestrels hovered here and there, but if it was a slight disappointment not to see a Peregrine or Merlin, it was made up for by a Marsh Harrier quartering the fields and mudflats, occasionally rising above the skyline for a more wide-ranging look.
Quite the best thing about birding from any boat, though, is that the birds let you get much closer than you might otherwise manage. Red-necked Grebe was a nice addition to the list, but our real highlight was a Great Northern Diver which allowed us to approach relatively close – certainly closer than any I’ve ever seen before.
The same could be said about a Shag on one of the buoys – the quiet, stately progress of the barge seems to put the birds at their ease, making life much easier for birdwatchers.
We were sustained throughout by as much tea and coffee as the cold demanded, and the breakfast baps were just what were needed to fuel what turned out to be four-and-a-half hours of great birding.
As we reached Mistley again, and waited for the water to rise a little so that we could get into our berth, we added Turnstone to the list, plus Grey Wagtails on the maltings on the shore, and a couple of Kingfishers skimming low over the main channel. Our final total, 47 species, was evidence of a fine, and unusual, morning’s birding.
Price is £37.50 per person, which includes tea, coffee and breakfast in a bun. Children must be accompanied by adults, and booking is essential. Places are still available on a few of the regular sailings in January. You can find more details here.
Bo Beolens, creator of www.fatbirder.com, which brings together the UK and the world’s birding websites, talks about how this useful service started
Back in 1996 someone told me about the existence of the internet… and, between jobs a year later, I took my first look at the world wide web… having only just struggled to master using a computer to write letters and keep accounts.
When I did start to surf around I was amazed by what was out there – nearly a million websites covering a world of wonders from institutions, societies, companies and even individual. But, like most new boys toys I soon found the limitations. There was a plethora of search engines, but none was king and all used different techniques so when I looked for things I wanted, like birding checklists, ID help, local reserves or birding clubs, I realized that the web was in its infancy and the tool I wanted – a neon sign pointing to all things birdy - just didn’t exist. Sure there were a few ‘portmanteau’ sites, but they were almost exclusively American and, bless them, most seemed the think that their state was their country and the ‘rest of the world’ was the other 59 states, somewhere at either end of the universe were dragons called ‘Canada’ and ‘Mexico’!
My problem has always been that I just can’t leave things alone… so I began to collect lists of websites that I found useful for some aspect of my birding passion – information about places to bird, UK clubs and ornithology societies and so on. Back then, when I searched for ‘bird clubs’ I’d get different answers from ‘Alta Vista’ than from ‘Lycos’ and from the other dozen search engines, and each would throw up a different set of answers back before we found Yahoo or from 2000 when we all learned to ‘Google’!
My lists grew but, apart from sending these to some other birding friends, things went no further until somehow, I can’t even remember how, I was approached by a web developer who was, at the time, creating and managing the websites of one of the UK’s top ten companies. He was bored with the same old stuff and had seen my pleas for help. He said he would create a website for me if I told him what I wanted – and for free! The downside was that it would be done in his time scale not mine.
So, in 1999, a full year before Google had indexed more websites than Yahoo I began to put together Fatbirder – a great big signpost on the web pointing to all things related to birding and wild birds.
I remember the end of that first week when I looked at the ‘stats’ on the website and found I had had 111 hits! Wow, imagine, 110 peeps at Fatbirder pages, I was overwhelmed with the success.
Now Google has penetrated every corner of the wide world, there are hundreds of millions of websites and Fatbirder gets up to 4 million hits a month!
Naturally, in over a decade the site has grown immensely. It was a UK site to start with, but soon became world spanning. Then I went deeper into state level in N America and then in many places. I am still adding regional pages – apart from state level for all the large countries from Brazil to China people’s requests need to be met so, for example, countries like France and Spain were split down into regions and latterly I’ve even got pages for individual islands in the Canaries.
On request I have visited some areas of the world and created a Fatbirder page for a birding hot spot such as the Rio Grande Valley in Texas… with the trip kindly sponsored by McAllen Chamber of Commerce.
This in itself shows not just how the web world has changed. but how much birding has developed too. Back in my youth ‘bird spotting’, whether it was in the UK or US, was seen as something done by a nerdy Billy-no-mates dressed like an overgrown boy scout. Now, in the US alone there are 60 million birders sprouting a 40 billion dollar a year birding industry.
So Fatbrider has grown along side it… a few years ago I added pages for every bird family and started listing every bird for each family. Every country now carries an up dated list of that country’s endemics.
The latest changes came last year with the format changing so that page sections can be individually scrolled because many were getting so large. The very latest update, just completed, means that every birding hot spot or reserve listed throughout the world has a link to a Google map so you can not only find where it is, but can see a satellite view. Now there are over 2000 pages of information and 30,000 or so links to birding resources. Every day birders from each corner of the planet send me updates or additions. My erstwhile hobby has turned into a 24/7 labour of love, just making sure that all the links are up to date.
Birding was always my passion now it seems to have crept into the nooks and crannies of every waking moment… its just as well my wife is a keen birder too! Although, it has to be said that the more Fatbirder has grown the less I seem to be able to get out in the field to see birds!
Fatbirder led to Fatfisherman and Fatphotographer - sister websites doing for those pastimes what Fatbirder does for birders.
In 2000 I started a charity, then called the ‘disabled birders association’, now known as ‘Birding For All’, to encourage better access for all birders to birding resources. I, as well as other active members, get asked to comment on facilities and big providers like the RSPB routinely consult us when upgrading public facilities. I’ve even had one or two invites to look at reserves overseas.
I started writing occasional articles and now have a regular magazine column as the ‘Grumpy Old Birder’ and in 2003 co-wrote ‘Whose Bird’ about people after whom birds have been named… this led to similar more academic works such as the ‘Eponym Dictionary of Mammals’ and the ‘Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles’ published a couple of months ago. Ever since ‘Whose Bird’ was published dealing with common names we have been correcting and expanding it and now have, close to completion, the ‘Eponym Dictionary of Birds’ with every person covered who is commemorated in the name of a bird, common or scientific, genus, species or subspecies.
Fatbirder even led me into dipping my toe into the travel business with ‘Anytime Tours’ offering to organize trips for couples or small groups anytime, anywhere and after that ‘Birders Travel’ the first and so far only, true ‘comparison’ website for birding tours – which may well have been re-launched by the time you read this.
Through Fatbirder I am ‘e-acquainted’ with literally thousands of birders round the globe from the newby birder asking for ID advice to the great and good of the birding world.
Every year at the Bird Fair I get to meet hundreds and hundreds of Fatbirder surfers or Grumpy Old Birder readers and get three days of fame. Its terrific to bask in praise, but I’m very happy for it to be for just three days when I see how the truly famous faces are followed and feted - I’d hate to be even a D-List celebrity!
So Fatbirder has not only affected my life as a birder, but my life as a whole.
Maybe this article should come with a warning – surfing for birds on the net can seriously change your life!
Note: This is an archived article from the previous Bird Watching website...
If you have ever watched a bird, marvelled at their flight or particularly, held something like a finch in your hands, you will know it is a kind of foolishness to try and make one out of a few kilos of metal.
But that is the aim, and sculptor Theodore Gillick tries to describe in static, solid form a soft surface, quicksilver movement, an inner life and subtlety of the highest order. This outlook for today’s sculptors is very contemporary: Artists are looking at the world around them with the eyes of David Attenborough, describing what they see without superiority, grandeur or symbolism. It is the study of nature in its most natural state; a view through a telescope brought right up close so that you can touch it.
This should be, and is, much more difficult than it looks. A painter is able to describe a grouse rocketing over the heather or a stooping peregrine. But there is no perspective, background or context in a sculpture and the artist needs to find devices that escape the restrictions of their art, to suspend a thing in space and to make it effortless. In Gillick’s ‘Rising Partridges’ the background – a sculpture in its own right – both describes and emphasises the direction and energy of movement, it suggests the wheat or barley stems and also holds aloft the rising birds. I have often startled coveys of these wonderful birds while out on walks and the clatter of wings and the thrum and whirr as they wheel away is the inspiration.
On the same walks Theodore found a woodland pool surrounded by a thick bank of reeds and his ‘Reed Warbler’ study is the result of quiet watching. The reed warbler often falls under the acronym ‘LBJ’ or ‘little brown job’, an insignificant, nondescript bird, but it has a delightful voice. The abandon of the warbler family’s songs – fluid, strong, at times reed-like and whistling, is as fine a celebration of life and the impulses of nature as can be heard. As in many of his other sculptures, Theodore’s aim is to convey to a viewer as much as possible about the bird’s characteristics. The whole design describes animal, habitat and habit in a single, unique image.
His design for a study of a barn owl appears at first to be contrived but the simple objective of ‘Night Owl’ was to make a nocturnal scene to suit a nocturnal animal. The circumference of the moon sets the rhythm of the piece and moves the whole imagery in a circular motion. All the parts speak to one another, and each element requires the other and justifies it, either in terms of the story or structurally. The little mouse at the bottom triangulates the fixings and makes it possible to balance the moon. The moon sets the scene and acts as perch. The owl perches and his posture is determined by the mouse below. There is no context in a sculpture, but one can go quite a long way to telling a complete story.
Theodore Gillick is part of, and understands perhaps as well as any of a growing figurative movement that is unconsciously working along these lines, and his bronzes of birds are among many British wildlife studies he has made. There are as many styles of bird and animal sculpture as there are people — some exemplary sculptors summarise a bird’s form to minimal detail and perfect surfaces. Theodore’s bird studies are full of life. His sculpture describes bird forms accurately, but the real aim that makes the pieces come alive is their identifiable character and interior life and the ability to capture a fleeting memory. One can therefore expect to find quiet and sensitive forms, and at other times an intensity that concentrates itself into a work bursting with life.
Theodore Gillick will be exhibiting his sculptures at this year’s Olympia, The London International Horse Show 13-19 December 2011. You can view his other sculptures by visiting his website www.gillick-sculpture.com. New works come out of the foundry each May. Studio appointments very welcome and very enjoyable and can be arranged directly with Theodore Gillick.
Note: This is an archived article from the previous Bird Watching website...
If you’ve read my feature on birdwatching around Quito in the Summer issue of Bird Watching, you’ll know that it’s urban birding quite unlike any you’ve seen before.
But while I’d hope it’s given you a taste of just what an astonishing variety of birds you could see without ever venturing into Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, or out to the Galapagos (they’re stories for another day), you shouldn’t miss out on the rest of what the capital has to offer.
San Francisco de Quito, to give it its full name, sits in the Guayllabamba river basin, in north-central Ecuador. To anyone coming from a country as low-lying (in relative terms) as Britain, its location alone is enough to make the mouth drop open in wonder. The centre is 2,800m (9,200ft) above sea level, with the active Pichincha volcano looming over this metropolis of nearly two million residents.
Designated one of the first two World Cultural Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1978 (the other was Krakow), it has one of the best, if not the best, preserved historic centres in South America, and at the heart of this old colonial city are some truly extraordinary churches.
The churches of La Compania de Jesus, of San Francisco, and of Santo Domingo, date back to the early 17th and even late 16th centuries, and while their exteriors are typical of the time, the interiors need to be seen to be believed.
The gold leaf that seems to cover everything in sight is a testament to the mineral wealth that the Conquistadors found and seized when they arrived in South America, but the fabulously baroque carvings are unlike anything you’d find in a European church.
Sculpted, in many cases, by Native Americans, closer inspection reveals a bestiary of Ecuador’s animals and birds, with Jaguars stalking through friezes of the local vegetation, and hummingbirds flitting around while Condors soar above. It’s a reminder not just of the richness of Ecuador’s biodiversity, but of how central that was to the native way of life.
This Old City has been cleaned up and appropriately renovated in recent years, and there are plenty of English-speaking Municipal Police on hand to offer directions, advice and the like. It makes strolling the narrow, sometimes steep streets safe, and a pleasure. The plaza outside the Church of San Francisco is as good a place as any to start (it was once the marketplace used by the indigenous inhabitants) if you want to explore the many excellent museums within walking distance, the shopping district, or the pavement cafes and bars.
The other side of Quito is La Mariscal Sucre, a vibrant area of bars, restaurants and hotels that’s hugely popular with foreign visitors. A highlight here was the Museo de Artesanias Mindalae, a really outstanding museum, with English-speaking guides available. It features an amazing range of Ecuadorian craftwork, showing you how it relates to the country’s history and mythology, and there’s a great gift shop, and a restaurant/coffee shop.
I was only able to touch, in the magazine, on the sheer diversity of Quito’s parks. Itchimbia might be the best to start with, sitting atop a hill with great views of the Old City below. It’s a relatively recent creation, and bustles with joggers, dog-walkers, school parties and the like, although never enough to deter the many birds.
La Carolina is more along the lines of London’s Regent’s Park, or New York’s Central Park. Bordered by Quito’s main business district, it contains excellent Botanical Gardens (a great place to see before you venture out into the city’s surroundings, just to get an idea of the range of habitat you’ll encounter), a vivarium, and the Natural History Museum. This boasts a superb collection of skins (many of them collected by ornithologist Juan Manuel Carrion, who was my guide around Quito), which can be viewed by appointment.
The Metropolitan Park is the ‘wildest’ of the three, with lots of tree cover (eucalyptus, mainly, but efforts are being made to reintroduce more native species) and opportunities to get off the beaten track and search for birds. It’s popular with mountain bikers, picnickers, etc., but it’s large enough that you can easily find undisturbed areas.
Of course, no visit to Ecuador would be complete without a visit to La Mitad del Mundo (literally, The Middle of the World), just over 20 miles from central Quito. Just before you visit, El Crater restaurant is worth a visit. For one thing, it overlooks the Pululahua geo-botanical reserve, which includes the only inhabited volcano crater in the world. For another, it’s a good place to sample some of Quito’s culinary specialities, such as locro de papa (a delicious potato and cheese soup), and fritada (fried pork with potato cakes, toasted corn and other trimmings).
There’s a large monument astride the Equator itself, plus a museum, planetarium, restaurants, and even a small chapel. Global Positioning System technology has actually determined that Equator is some 240m north of the monument, but who’s arguing? I bet you’ll still end up getting your photo taken on either side of the line!
More info: www.juanmanuelcarrion.com
Note: This is an archived article from the previous Bird Watching website.
In the middle of October, something happens to British twitchers. The lure of six small islands 28 miles off the Cornish coast becomes too strong to resist and thousands of dedicated birders up and leave their local patches in a mad scramble to bag themselves a ‘lifer’. Neil Glenn explains how you can be a part of the madness, too.
When to go
The peak season for Scilly is the middle two weeks in October. Statistically, this is the prime time for finding rare birds on the islands so this is the period most birders choose to stay. In truth, anything can turn up at any time from mid September to the middle week of November. If you wish to avoid the crowds, you should avoid those middle two weeks of October. The downside of this ploy is that more eyes mean more rarities will be found. The upside is that if Britain’s first Willet is discovered during these off-peak weeks you will be watching it with only a handful of similarly smug birdwatchers.
Some birdwatchers travel to Scilly in spring, mainly in May, when several rarities have been found as well as many overshooting migrants such as White Stork, Alpine Swift, Black Kite, Hoopoe, Savi’s Warbler, rare herons, etc. The islands certainly aren’t overburdened with birdwatchers during this period, so if you like the idea of finding some good birds while enjoying a quiet walk then spring might be the time for you to get a feel for the islands.
Even in peak periods, getting away from the crowds isn’t that difficult. Shy birdwatchers can easily head the opposite way to the ‘green army’ when news of a rarity breaks. In fact, this can pay dividends as I found to my benefit when my wife and I headed to Bryher one October afternoon in 1996 as three boat loads steamed towards St. Agnes for a “possible” Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Our reward was to find a Bobolink and to watch the boatloads appear on the horizon to appreciate our find when news spread!
And if you really want to get away from the crowds you can always visit St. Martin’s. A few brave pioneers strike out to this outpost in the hope of earning fame and glory by finding their own ‘mega’. Like-minded individuals should be warned that such a ploy can backfire, as Martin’s is mostly out of radio range and it may also prove difficult to evacuate the island should a rarity be found on another island. Such decisions add extra stress to what should be a relaxing hobby.
Once you have decided when to go, you now have to choose your mode of travel. There are three ways of getting to Scilly, other than swimming: the Scillonian III, the helicopter and the Skybus. The boat offers the bonus of seeing several seabird species such as skuas, auks, petrels, shearwaters and Sabine’s Gull but you will need a good stomach. It is not known as the Great White Stomach Pump for nothing!
I remember one entertaining evening at the nightly log in the local pub (more of which later) when a newly arrived birder reported a Storm Petrel from the Scillonian that afternoon. When asked if he had got a good look at the bird, he memorably replied, “Yes, I was sick all over it!” I’m sure the seagoing waif enjoyed the homemade organic chum.
The quickest way of jumping the twenty eight miles from mainland Cornwall to the islands is to take to the air, though fares are very expensive. Mile for mile, an equivalent airfare to New York would cost over £12,000!
Accommodation ranges from camping on The Garrison (only for the very hardy in October), reasonable bed and breakfast establishments, through to renting cottages or staying at luxury hotels at over £150 per night. Having said that, in busy years I have found people sleeping in hides and even under the rickety Community bus so there really is something to suit everyone’s pocket.
You will probably make landfall on St. Mary’s, the main island of Scilly. Ostensibly, the only way of getting around is on foot, as visitors are not allowed to take their cars (although blue badge holders can apply in advance to take their vehicle with them).
A few taxis ferry people from the quay and airfield and they are available at the drop of a bobble hat when a rarity turns up. Be prepared to share with a group of anxious birdwatchers and you should survive the ride along the narrow, country lanes!
The Community bus sometimes runs during The Scilly Season and is good value at £1. Last year, this stopped running half way through October, which was a bit bizarre to say the least. If all else fails you could try hitching a lift: the locals are well used to the weird and wonderful ways of birdwatchers now.
Getting from island to island is a simple matter of stepping onto one of the inter-island boats. The owners readily put on extra trips if needed and are prepared to run at any time should the need arise. And why shouldn’t they? When the aforementioned Short-toed Eagle frequented The Eastern Isles, the boatmen christened it The Golden Eagle!
All than glisters is not gold
It is important for newcomers to remember that rare birds are not hanging about on every street corner. Having read the reports, it may seem to Scilly virgins that they will step off the boat and find a Blackpoll Warbler hopping about around their feet. I know people who have scoured the hedges and bushes on the islands solidly, dawn to dusk for two weeks every October and have still never found a BB rarity so one has to be realistic.
What you do have is an excellent opportunity of finding a sub-rarity such as Yellow-browed Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Short-toed Lark, Richard’s Pipit and the like. The more you study the weedy fields and the thick bushes, the more chance you have of turning up the ‘megas’ such as Yellow-browed Bunting, Philadelphia Vireo, Common Yellowthroat, etc.
Conversely, it is easy for a Scilly novice to make a faux pas as they stroll around the leafy lanes and enchanted forest-like trails. Most do not realise that a Yellowhammer, Green Woodpecker or Long-tailed Tit would cause a mass stampede of local birdwatchers to see such island ‘megas’ and only mention them a few days later in passing. Other such sought after species include Bullfinch, Corn Bunting, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Rook, Coal Tit, Treecreeper and Nuthatch to name but a few. By far the commonest woodpecker species is Wryneck!
I remember a few years ago when the resident birdwatchers urgently hired a boat to take them to St. Martins where a Magpie had been found; the first for thirty years. Scilly really is a very strange place!
It’s quiet. Too quiet…
Once on the islands, flushed with enthusiasm, you will no doubt feel the need to ask the obligatory birdwatcher’s question of anyone you meet: “Anything about?” Depending on whom you encounter, you will at some point be greeted with: “It’s very quiet”.
Pay no attention to these people! Scilly is populated by a curmudgeonly bunch of old timers (and yes I include myself in this category) that seem to measure quietness by the number of Firsts-For-Britain on show at any one time. Further probing of these glass-half-empty types might reveal ‘just another’ Blackpoll Warbler on The Garrison, the seemingly annual Wilson’s Snipe on Lower Moors and a whole host of Little Buntings, Blyth’s Reed Warblers, American Golden Plovers, Short-toed Larks, Red-breasted Flycatchers, Spoonbills, Yellow-browed Warblers, Richard’s Pipits, etc.
A degree of torture may be needed to even draw a mention of such beauties as Red-backed Shrikes, Firecrests, Black Redstarts, Wrynecks and Jack Snipes or such drab scarcities as Rose-coloured Starlings, Common Rosefinches or Serins from these people such is the disdain in which these species are held amongst some birdwatchers.
And Lapland Buntings, Snow Buntings, Dotterel, etc. do not even trouble the radar of these Grumpies. I was once watching a Kestrel master a howling gale on a grassy bank below the airfield, admiring the way in which it hung in the air, head perfectly still against a force seven gale while I, fifteen stones of solid, immovable fat, was being buffeted off the coastal path when I was approached by a birdwatcher who enquired what I was looking at. When I pointed to the Kestrel hovering ten feet above his head he emitted an audible, disgusted “tut” and walked on. Well they do say beauty is in the eye of the beholder…
Fieldcraft and ettiquette
At some point, the Scilly virgin will be confronted by a melee of birdwatchers crammed into a tiny space trying to see the latest avian arrival like a pack of Paparazzi photographers around the newest Z-list ‘celeb’. This can be daunting but there a few survival tips to bear in mind to help you through.
Once news of a rare or scarce bird breaks there is always a dash to see it. On the whole, autumn birds tend to stick around on Scilly for a couple of days at least so you may choose to hang back a bit and let the crowds subside before you go and see the target species. Again, this ploy has its drawbacks: more eyes on site help to relocate a bird should it decide to move. If you are first on the scene the following day, you may not be able to find it on your own. If you like this sort of challenge, all well and good but it can be frustrating especially if it is a ‘lifer’ for you!
A good illustration of this came one October when I was leading a group. An Olive-backed Pipit was found on St. Agnes early one morning and several boatloads of birders headed out to see it. My group had a pleasant morning on the main island before catching a later boat to see the pipit. By all accounts, it was mayhem in the morning as people jostled to see the OBP: a good bird but certainly not in the top bracket of Scilly rarities by any stretch of the imagination.
When we arrived, there were less than ten people admiring the bird at close range without a hint of pushing and shoving. Of course, my tactic could have gone horribly wrong if the OBP had suddenly vanished but we were rewarded with unobstructed views of this subtly beautiful species and were thus close by when a Bobolink was found a few hundred yards away. Sometimes, fortune favours the slow!
After a short while, you will get to know the people to stand near when a bird is being looked for. Some birders seem to see the bird well and quickly whereas others always struggle and sometimes dip out altogether. I cannot mention names but you will soon learn who to follow and who to avoid.
If you do see the bird well, then please allow others to take your place at your viewing spot. There is nothing more annoying than hearing the same voice giving directions to a bird over and over again over the space of an hour when people around them cannot see: yes we know you can see it, and have seen it several times, now please move so someone else can have a chance!
After a frantic day’s marathon attempting to see all of the new arrivals, whether it be your seventh Yellow-browed Warbler of the week or a coronary-inducing Upcher’s Warbler on St. Martin’s, or a slow day informing everyone who will listen that it is painfully quiet, it is the tradition to round off the day’s entertainment in the local pub at The Bird Log.
With pint in hand, birders gather to find out what has been seen, what might have been seen or glean a bit of birding gossip. Amongst other birdwatching wares such as holidays, videos, radios and books there is also a chance to purchase the latest photographs of some of the birds you have seen on your trip.
If there are one or two ‘megas’ on the islands, the atmosphere at the log can be electric. There is almost as big a crush at the photographers’ table as at the twitch itself, everyone eager to see how well the snappers have captured the momentous bird for posterity. The Master of Ceremonies shouts out each species and people shout back how many they have seen, e.g. “fifty seven Gadwalls on Tresco” if it has been a slow day. The trick is to let everyone have their say then trump the highest total just as the announcer is about to move to the next species (“actually there were fifty nine Gadwalls on Tresco”).
Scilly virgins can make a fool of themselves at this point if they aren’t careful. Do not claim six hundred Cormorants off Deep Point: Cormorants are relatively scarce on the islands so you are seeing Shags. I have also mentioned some species that are rare on Scilly but very common on the mainland so be prepared for a disbelieving gasp when you casually mention you saw a Corn Bunting in the morning, especially if you haven’t mentioned it to anyone since!
The log is an essential tool to plan your activities for the following day. You may wish to follow up on the rumour of that Hermit Thrush on Gugh or you may choose to head in completely in the opposite direction to avoid the bulk of birdwatchers. You will also be helping to add to the data of the birds on the islands: your records, even of the most common species, really do count and you can see this in the excellent Annual Report published by The Isles of Scilly Bird Group (ISBG).
Join the fun!
All of this may seem a little daunting to newcomers. Some people hate the Scilly Season while others wouldn’t dream of missing a year (I am in the latter category). It really isn’t anything to be anxious about. Every new birder is welcome and you will strike up many a happy friendship on your annual visits. I have seen several children grow up during my time on the islands, kids I first encountered in pushchairs being wheeled around by birdwatching parents who are now going to University and still joining us, which is nice.
For people travelling to Scilly for the first time, I would strongly recommend you join a guided group (see Who Goes There? Section). The experienced leaders will guide you through your first visit helping you to get to know the ropes. In this way, you will be able to tell if this is the sort of holiday you enjoy or it isn’t. You may choose to come back on your own after one or two years, once you feel comfortable amongst more experienced birdwatchers. Of course, I have to declare a vested interest in this strategy but it really does make sense for the first time visitor.
Specialist guide Will Wagstaff relates the story of his recent trip to Antarctica.
The mixture of penguins, albatrosses and icebergs is a heady one, and when you add in whales, seals and a variety of seabirds it becomes even more attractive. It is therefore no surprise that, for many, Antarctica is very high on their wish list of places to visit. A few years ago I worked on expedition ships in this region and I was lucky enough to be given another opportunity this year on Prince Albert II, owned and operated by Silver Seas.
The most accessible region of the seventh continent is the Antarctic Peninsular which lies some seven hundred miles south of South America and is within two days sail from ports such as Ushuaia in Argentina and Punta Arenas in Chile. It is possible to visit Antarctica from Australia and New Zealand but as this involves a lot more sea time, it’s not as popular as cruises that depart from South America. There are a wide variety of ships that ply these waters, from those carrying many hundreds of passengers that just cruise around the Peninsular without landing, to the smaller expedition ships such as the Prince Albert II that are able to land at some of the many sites on the Antarctic islands and on the Peninsular itself. The latter is very popular with those trying to visit all seven continents to do that ‘Continental Landing’. The weather is often not as cold as expected with temperatures around or just below zero on many occasions, but there are days when the breeze gets up and the wind chill makes it feel much colder. That’s when the need for another layer or two becomes paramount. On sunny days, on the other hand, a good sun screen is essential with the clear atmosphere and the reflection off the snow and sea.
For many the prospect of crossing the Drake Passage can seem rather daunting, with its reputation as one of the roughest sea crossings on the planet. However the likelihood of a calm ‘Drake Lake’ is just as likely as a rough crossing. Those who are unlucky enough to see the Drake at its worst will dine out for years on stories of how high the waves were! It is in these seas, however, that one becomes entranced with close encounters with the gigantic Wandering Albatrosses as they serenely glide, low over the swells, often coming right up behind the ship before wheeling away, only to return a few minutes later. They are usually joined by several Southern Giant Petrels that have an equally graceful flight, although they are not such an attractive bird.
Their rarer cousin the Northern Giant Petrel can sometimes also be seen coming to have a closer look at the ship. Black-browed Albatrosses are common near to South America with Grey-headed and occasionally Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses also putting in an appearance. In amongst all these giants there are many smaller species to be seen, ranging from the tiny Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and sundry Diving-Petrels to the ever-graceful prions and shearwaters. Sooty Shearwaters are particularly numerous near the tip of South America and as you travel further south, the bouncy flight of the Black-bellied Storm Petrel can be seen, skipping their way along the sea surface. Leaving the Beagle Channel, Commerson’s Dolphin can sometimes be found riding the bow waves of the Pilot Boats as they meet each cruise ship.
As you near the Peninsular the chance of whale sightings increases, but they can be seen anywhere if the weather is calm enough. The sighting of that first ‘blow’ is one of the magical moments of any cruise. It may well turn out to be a small group of Fin Whales closing in on a school of fish, or more likely in voyages in the post Christmas season, it will be a Humpback Whale. Although these animals do not have such a large blow, they have a smaller, rather bumpy dorsal fin they more than make up for this by showing their tail flukes as they deep-dive after a few minutes of shallow dives. Humpback Whales are very curious and will sometimes approach a stationary ship. When this happens, you can get wonderful displays as they cruise close to and fro, often underneath the ship. If you’re really lucky they will breach, coming clear out of the water. Other species of whales can be seen on calm days, as well as the very attractive black and white Hourglass Dolphins which are often one of the highlights of a Drake crossing.
The crossing of the Antarctic Convergence, where the sea temperature drops to below 2˚C, is rarely marked by any obvious physical phenomena but is an important waymark on any trip south. The expedition staff that are on board take advantage of the days at sea to give lectures on a wide variety of subjects, from the birdlife you hope to see to the marine mammals, to geology and history of the areas the ship will visit. These usually take place during the daytime with recaps before dinner that give more information about the sights and events of the day.
Every cruise is different as the weather has a way of making the best laid plans go awry. If it has been a ‘Drake Lake’ crossing, depending upon the speed of the vessel, there is usually a first landing in the South Shetland Islands. As the ship nears these islands the attractive black and white upperwing pattern of the Cape Petrels can be seen from the ship’s windows, as they glide in synchronised flocks back and fore as if trying to make sure they can be seen from every cabin. Antarctic Skuas also become more numerous when land comes into sight. However, it is the sight of white capped hills that brings everyone on deck as Antarctica comes into view.
There are a great many sites that ships can visit, looking for wildlife, history, geology or just marvelling at the magnificent scenery. Ice permitting, the opportunity to visit the Adelie Penguin colonies on islands such as Paulet Island or at Brown Bluff in the Weddell Sea is one of the highlights of any cruise. Sailing through Antarctic Sound towards these sites is a photographer’s dream on a sunny day as there are many enormous bergs of all shapes from tabular to the sculptured. On approaching the landing site large numbers of Adelie Penguins can be seen marching along the waterfront from one end of the colony to the other. Later in the season these adults are joined by the youngsters who very quickly grasp that to be an Adelie Penguin involves a lot walking. The Brown Bluff landing is also a good site for volcanic geology and is a ‘continental landing’.
Port Lockroy is the most visited site in Antarctica as it is one of the historic sites in the Peninsular. It was used as a British base until the early 1960s and is now a museum and shop with associated post office. The museum is an excellent opportunity to see how the bases were run and what equipment was used but it is the shop. The chance to send a postcard also makes this a very popular stop. It has a colony of Gentoo Penguins that nest very close to the buildings and are seemingly oblivious to all the comings and goings.
One other base that is a popular stop is the Ukraine base at Vernadsky in the Argentine Islands. This ex-British Base, now run by some very welcoming Ukraine scientists, gives a very good idea of what it must be like to live and work for months at a time in one of the most remote places on earth.
One of the most magical experiences on an Antarctic voyage is a sunset cruise through the Lemaire Channel. This spectacular fjord with its peaks on each side climbing almost vertically to over 3000 feet, lit by the orange glow of the setting sun, is a fantastic sight. It is also a good area for wildlife with Minke Whale and Humpback Whale seen regularly. The ice floes are good sites for Crabeater and Leopard Seals. Other popular channels for cruising include the Errera Channel and Gerlach Strait, which are scenic and have a wide variety of wildlife.
With so many landing sites containing abundant wildlife it must sometimes be difficult for the expedition leaders to decide where to land when the schedules are sorted out. Two favourite sites are on Cuverville Island and Peterman Island. Both contain good numbers of penguins with Gentoos dominating on Cuverville, where it is also possible to find one of the two flowering plants on the continent, the Antarctic Hair Grass. Peterman Island also has a small population of Adelie Penguins which are often the only ones seen on cruises early in the season when ice prevents access into the Weddell Sea.
Zodiac cruising is also popular, particularly at the Argentine Base Brown where half of the group will land on the continent and explore this base, although it is often closed. The other half can cruise around Paradise Harbour looking for seals, whales, penguins and icebergs in superb scenery before later swapping over. The most famous cruising area is in Pleneau Bay, otherwise known as ‘Iceberg Graveyard’, where many large bergs have grounded and are slowly being eroded into the most fantastic shapes and colours. The smaller, flatter icebergs are temporary home to many Crabeater Seals and there are usually Leopard Seals to be found. The latter often investigating the passing zodiacs. Their sinuous grace in the water allied to their sinister ‘smile’ makes for a memorable experience as they pass beneath the boat.
The majority of cruises to Antarctica visit the South Shetland Islands and the Peninsular but there are some that also call in at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. The Falkland Islands are some of my favourite destinations. I am always pleased to visit this amazing archipelago. As most ships are coming from the tip of South America, the western side of the Falklands is their first port of call. This usually means a visit to West Point Island or New Island, or sometimes both, which have very accessible colonies of Black-browed Albatrosses and Rockhopper Penguins. These charismatic birds can keep you entertained for hours with their antics, and photographing flying albatrosses is one of the most frustrating and rewarding time wasters I know.
The nearby Carcass and Saunders Islands are also popular stops with Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins added to the Black-browed and Rockhopper mix on Saunders, in a wonderful site known as ‘The Neck’. Carcass Island also has two species of penguins and has the added attraction of a small settlement with its welcoming hosts and a table groaning with cakes and tea. It also has an amazing array of small birds, as this island has remained rat free throughout its history. So, Black-chinned Siskins abound in the pines around the houses and the endemic Cobb’s Wren can pop up almost anywhere. The very rare Striated Caracara is always present here, on the look out for something to steal and live up to its local nickname of ‘Johnny Rook’. Small flocks of the endemic Falkland Flightless Steamer Duck are scattered along the beach, along with large numbers of Kelp Geese and Speckled Teal.
Most ships only spend two days in the islands, visiting Stanley, the very colourful capital where the museum is a popular stop on the bus tours around the town. There are a range of souvenir shops close to the jetty plus an array of very familiar looking pubs for those looking for a touch of local colour. The larger ships that call into Stanley can make it seem a very busy place at times with passengers coming and going on battlefield tours or farm visits as well as spending time around the capital. Sea Lion Island and Bleaker Island lying to the south east are popular stops for those ships coming up from Antarctica or South Georgia. They are also well deserving of the title of wildlife spectaculars, with the huge Southern Elephant Seals of Sea Lion Island being particularly popular.
A few days at sea heading south east you find the spectacular island of South Georgia with its snow capped peaks and abundant wildlife. Most ships visit the northern side of the island where the many sheltered bays are home to huge colonies of Fur Seals and Elephant Seals. The island is probably best known for the enormous King Penguin colonies, in particular at St Andrew’s Bay and Salisbury Plain, but it is the very scenic Gold Harbour which is a favourite of those fortunate enough to have visited all these sites.
A visit to either Prion or Albatross Island in the Bay of Isles is a highlight of any visit to South Georgia as it provides a chance to see Wandering Albatross on its home ground. Visits to these islands are very strictly controlled, with numbers of passengers ashore at any one time being limited and each landing restricted to a short duration to minimise any disturbance of these magnificent birds. Whether it is a huge fluffy chick walking around the Tussac waiting for its parents to return or an adult bird, it is always memorable encountering these enormous birds with their 12 foot wingspan.
The disused whaling station at Grytviken is a must-visit site, with its fascinating museum containing relics from when it was a hive of activity. After a lot of work the buildings have been cleared of loose metal and asbestos so that all the machinery that was used in processing the whales can be seen. The popular museum also contains the shop. It is here that you can also visit the grave of one of the best known Antarctic Explorers, Ernest Shackleton, on one side of the bay. His memorial is at nearby King Edward Point, home to the British Antarctic Survey base.
As the ships cruise in the waters around South Georgia small groups of Macaroni Penguin can be seen porpoising their way to and from the open sea. Their colonies are on some of the steeper Tussac Grass covered slopes and, as such, are not easy to access, but some of those at Cooper Bay at the eastern end of the island are sometimes visited. This area is also home to the northernmost colonies of the Chinstrap Penguin.
Although not a cheap holiday, the memories from an Antarctic cruise are priceless and the lure of a repeat trip to the ice almost irresistible.
NOTE: Every cruise ship that visits Antarctica should belong to IAATO (the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) so that you travel in the knowledge that the highest standards of environmental protection are in force.
When Bird Watching reader Jonathon Boulding read about the illegal hunting of threatened species on Malta, he decided to get involved in the effort to stamp the practice out. Here he tells his story…
I first heard about Birdlife in Bird Watching Magazine. Birdlife Malta monitors migration during spring and autumn, and relies on volunteers in order to maintain a presence to deter hunters from shooting species migrating through the island.
This year the spring hunting season started on April 13, for two weeks, and as usual the legal species were Quail and Turtle Dove. The main issue in the past has been that hunters ignore the rules and shoot anything from Montagu’s Harriers to Purple Herons, Ospreys to Cuckoos. I was later to find out that the lack of legal species, potentially due to over-hunting, is one of the main reasons for this.
I booked my flights to Malta on the back of hearing about the massacre of a large flock of Spoonbills sheltering from storms on the island early in 2011. In the past I’ve had little experience of conservation, apart from working at a wildlife rescue centre near Knutsford, and I was confident my trip to Malta wouldn’t involve the feeding and care of Woodpigeons and Collared Doves!
Due to the fact I recently got engaged I wasn’t looking forward to spending a week away from my family, and after receiving the introduction pack containing an itinerary full of 5am starts, I boarded the plane with a very negative attitude. I flew out on the afternoon of the 12th, and the couple I was sat next to were a little over-eager to wake me at any opportunity to offer me crisps and peanut-butter sandwiches and ask about my religious beliefs (they were Mormons).
But giving up any chance of sleep did have its benefits, as I was reminded just how little the general public are aware of the hunting issue. Neither of my aircraft neighbours had heard of Birdlife or the slaughter, even though they were regular visitors to the island. Once I’d explained more, they were appalled and said they’d be writing to their MP to get him to put pressure on the EU parliament to get the outstanding case resolved quickly.
Having landed, I found my transfer in the form of a middle-aged taxi driver. I quizzed her about the people she’d picked up in the last couple of days and was surprised to hear there were a great variety of nationalities and ages represented. I also asked about her beliefs on hunting and got a slightly unconvincing response that she liked to hear the birdsong in the morning and was against hunting.
I arrived at the four-star hotel at about 9pm, and met the other volunteers in the bar, and was very surprised to see there were a number of people around my age. There was a real buzz about, with volunteers discussing the day’s sightings and how accurately one member of the group could recreate the call of a Night Heron he’d heard that morning. It also became apparent that not everyone was a birder, and that there were absolute novices present who were regular volunteers with experience of a wide range of conservation projects.
Regardless of the mix of nationalities (there were Polish, Dutch, German, Finnish and Bulgarian) everyone was very friendly and it was easy to integrate myself into the group, though my knowledge of European species is a little questionable at the best of times!
I decided not to go out at 5am the next day in order to recover from my travel. Come the afternoon, though, I was allocated to a team and off we went under warm sun and blustery wind to a notorious hunting spot relatively close to our hotel. I was surprised that the first afternoon was so quiet and peaceful, but the sheer number of shotgun cartridges littering the countryside along with the large number of home-made bunkers was a harsh reminder of what went on on a regular basis. I found out that hunting had to stop before 3pm during the week, and that this was shortened to midday on the Saturday, with hunting forbidden on Sunday.
That afternoon I saw my first lifer – a Montagu’s Harrier, soaring 20ft or so overhead trying to catch a thermal. Given how quiet the afternoon was, we drove on to other locations in the north of the island, but thankfully there was very little activity and only a few shots were heard. On our return to the hotel we were reunited with the other teams, and a lot of excited chatter ensued detailing what illegal activity had been caught on camera or observed. It transpired that a hunter had been spotted in one of the nature reserves (this is strictly illegal) and that he had run off as soon as he realized he was being filmed. Another team had filmed an injured Purple Heron flying north with a dangling broken leg, most likely shot that morning.
Another team noted the first Golden Oriole of Springwatch 2011, plus a group of Bee-eaters and a pair of Pallid Harriers (Europe’s rarest raptor). The final team had not returned to the hotel as they’d seen a group of Marsh Harriers fly into a field to roost, followed by a number of shots.
The team did a great job of staying through the night to ensure no ‘lamping’ occurred. This is when a hunter wanders through the field with a flashlight or lamp, and when they come across a bird shine the lamp on it. Since it is against the bird’s instincts to fly at night, it will just mantle its wings, and the hunter shoots it at point blank range. Unfortunately this happened in one farmer’s field last year, where around 40 Marsh Harriers were found buried.
The next morning, unfortunately, one of the Marsh Harriers was seen to be shot down by a hunter. After such a dreadful start to the day, the mood was lifted by the largest flock of Squacco Herons ever to land on the island. I was fortunate enough to see them fly past and even from across the island it was quite breathtaking. Given the number of birds at risk, a nightwatch team was posted to protect them, but fortunately they’d decided to roost along with some Little Egrets at the foot of a cliff and the team only had to worry about an attack from the sea. Since none of the birds were seen leaving the roost it was assumed they’d continued on in the early hours before dawn.
In the following days high winds brought in huge numbers of raptors, including Marsh Harriers, Pallid Harriers, Montagu’s Harriers, Hobbies and Eleonora’s Falcons. A large number roosted in wooded areas and a nature reserve in the north and I volunteered to go out on my first nightwatch.
I was accompanied by two friendly young Maltese volunteers, and we spent an interesting night sitting out on a limestone pavement overlooking the wood and surrounding fields. It was strange, as part of me wanted something to occur – daft given the point of my visit.
Unfortunately, at around 11pm, something did and we heard three or four shots being fired from the wood. The second nightwatch team was situated in there, only about 100 yards from where the shot was fired, and immediately called the police. Predictably, no one was caught and once the police had attended, things were very quiet so we returned to our beds at about 1am.
The most difficult thing about Malta seems to be the evidence needed to convict poachers and the fact the police seem very hesitant to act. It’s easy to imagine that on such a small island, policemen may have friends or family who are poachers and any action taken may isolate them from the people they hold dear.
It could be even more extreme – one policeman was caught poaching wearing a balaclava. Apparently he was dismissed, but returned a year later. Also, due to the fact that the Maltese elections are so finely balanced, the FK&K (hunting federation) and its 6,000 or so members can sway the result one way or another. Springwatch efforts resulted in the confiscation of 50 or so guns from poachers, just for the Prime Minister to meet with FK&K representatives and subsequently put pressure on the police to return the weapons, carried out while we were still there.
During my last couple of days there were a couple of scuffles, mainly involving hunters and the Maltese volunteers, but Birdlife have hired a security team throughout Springwatch 2011 as a rapid response for any violent encounters, and at no point did I feel at all threatened or unsafe.
While I was waiting around on my last day I mulled over what I had taken from the whole experience.
I had been well impressed by the dedication and bravery shown by the Maltese coordinators and volunteers. At the end of the day I was able to fly home to a place where at worst my friends would playfully mock me for making the trip, whereas the Maltese volunteers and their families are ruthlessly targeted by hunters for standing in the way, having their crops burnt or their wells oiled.
I really did feel like my presence, along with the camcorders that we used to record footage of migrating birds, was a real deterrent to the hunters. I was able to see a number of lifers and draw on the experience of top-notch birders from around Europe, all on a shoestring. It cost £400 including food, which although a little monotonous at times was good and solid. It was also a great opportunity to meet a number of volunteers from different countries.
I also feel I have made an effort to maintain our heritage. It’s so easy for everyone to think that the RSPB, European Courts or someone else will sort out this problem but in the meantime the Maltese are shooting OUR birds, so in not doing anything we are going to deprive ourselves as well as our children of the right and the opportunity to see birds like Montagu’s Harrier, Spoonbill and even Marsh Harrier.
You could also ask yourself the question: “When was the last time I saw a Cuckoo or a Turtle Dove, and why is that?” It seems a great shame that we’re doing great conservation work for birds like Ospreys here in the UK that are being shot on migration, and I would urge anyone reading this to take a week out this autumn or in spring 2012 to go and help.
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There are just two species of Jay in Europe, the Eurasian Jay, we usually call the Jay and the smaller, brown and orange Siberian Jay. The latter is a widespread bird of the northern, boreal forests across from Europe to far-eastern Russia. It is related to the Gray Jay of North America and the highly localised Sichuan Jay of high altitude forests in central China.
Like all Jays, they are omnivorous feeding on a variety of berries, fruits, insects, other invertebrates, small rodents, and small birds’ eggs as well as carrion. They will come readily to scraps put out and in some areas are so habituated to humans that they will appear on forest paths awaiting feeding.
They also share with the Gray Jay the odd habit of producing sticky saliva from special glands to glue together berries and other food into balls to store for squeezing onto branches or lichen clumps. Later they will be recovered with the jay’s sticky tongue.
The sticky tongue is a valuable tool for extracting food items in crevices, and this is complemented with the almost tit-like acrobatics of this species.
Siberian Jays are 26-29cm long (ie thrush-sized; compared to Jays which are c35cm long) and predominantly shades of brown, with a darker brown cap and paler belly. The rump and tail sides are golden-rust, as patches on the wings. Thought he crown usually appears rounded, there is a bit of an erectile crest, which occasionally shows at the back of the crown.